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Virginia’s three leaders engulfed in turmoil, with Herring disclosure from college days

Plagued by scandals, Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring – all Democrats – are facing calls to resign. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) said Wednesday that he dressed in blackface during college, adding yet another scandal to the tumult that now engulfs the entire executive branch of state government.

Herring, Gov. Ralph Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — the state’s three top Democrats — all face wrenching questions about past behavior that threaten their careers.

The drama pervaded the state capital on one of the busiest days of the General Assembly, with emotional meetings behind closed doors and at least one lawmaker in tears. Two of the central players hid from public view, while the third, Fairfax, had no choice but to stand for hours on the dais of the Senate because of his job responsibilities. When they ended, he slipped away.

“We’ve gone from Shakespeare to Faulkner to Hawthorne in the space of about a week,” said Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax City).

Residents in Richmond shared their thoughts on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) days after a racist photo in his medical school yearbook page surfaced. (Video: Amber Ferguson, Dalton Bennett, Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

Just as political leaders were trying to digest the Herring news, the woman who has accused Fairfax of sexual assault made her first public statement, going into graphic detail about an alleged 2004 attack that Fairfax has vehemently denied.

Democrats grapple with Fairfax assault claim in #MeToo era

While there was almost universal condemnation of Northam over the weekend after a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced, the calls for his resignation paused Wednesday amid the new revelations about Herring and the intensifying Fairfax allegations.

The Legislative Black Caucus, an influential group of Democrats who on Saturday had called for Northam to resign, went silent Wednesday.

Republicans seemed unsure how to react. While the state party called on Herring to step down, it said nothing about Fairfax. And while House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), called the news about Herring “shocking” and the allegations against Fairfax “extremely serious,” he stopped short of telling either man to resign.

Apart from issuing a statement and meeting with black lawmakers in the morning, Herring has not been seen or heard from publicly since Saturday, when he called on Northam to resign over the governor’s yearbook photo.

Northam also stayed out of the public eye, cloistered in meetings with civil rights and faith leaders Wednesday. He signed the incentive package for the Amazon headquarters in Arlington on Tuesday — what would have been a moment of glory before cameras — in private.

Fairfax, after presiding over the state Senate session, slipped out of the building shortly after 1 p.m. and spent the rest of the day behind closed doors. He canceled earlier plans to play in an evening basketball game at Virginia Commonwealth University on Wednesday.

The statement from Fairfax’s accuser, Vanessa Tyson, about an alleged sexual assault in Boston in 2004, ricocheted around Capitol Square. Some lawmakers who couldn’t read the small type on a phone had an aide print it out and enlarge it for them.

And that was only hours after they had seen the statement from Herring, in which he admitted to darkening his skin to dress as rapper Kurtis Blow for a 1980 college party when he was 19.

“It sounds ridiculous even now writing it,” Herring said in his statement. “But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes — and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others — we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”

Herring called it a “one-time occurrence” for which he accepted responsibility.

“That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others,” Herring said. “It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.”

Herring suggested in the statement that he knew the incident would someday surface.

“I have a glaring example from my past that I have thought about with deep regret in the many years since, and certainly each time I took a step forward in public service, realizing that my goals and this memory could someday collide and cause pain for people I care about, those who stood with me in the many years since, or those who I hoped to serve while in office,” said Herring, who announced in December that he would run for governor in 2021.

Gov. Northam weighs resignation while Lt. Gov. Fairfax contends with assault claim

The furor over his fellow Democrats fed Northam’s impulse to stay put for now, according to two people familiar with his thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject.

If Northam should step down, Fairfax would succeed him, and Herring would be next in line.

The governor increasingly believes he should hang on at least through the end of the General Assembly session on Feb. 23 because stepping down now with such chaos at the executive level would create too much uncertainty regarding the budget and hundreds of pieces of pending legislation, the people said.

Though Northam took responsibility for the racist photo on Friday night, over the weekend, he said he was certain he was not in the picture. But he admitted another incident in which he put shoe polish on his cheeks to imitate Michael Jackson for a 1984 dance contest.

The governor’s staff has continued to work with lawmakers through the uproar, and Northam intends to become more involved with the legislative process in the coming days, they said. The governor hired IRMedia, a D.C.-based crisis management firm.

‘This isn’t me,’ Northam insisted to surprised advisers

Northam’s lone public act since Saturday came Tuesday, when he tweeted his “heartfelt condolences” to the family and friends of state trooper Lucas Dowell, who had been shot and killed Monday night while executing a search warrant near Farmville. The gesture triggered a torrent of caustic replies.

“A tragic loss,” one Twitter user wrote. “On a different note: RESIGN!”

Meanwhile, Fairfax put out two more statements Wednesday denying charges by Tyson, a professor at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex in a Boston hotel room during the Democratic National Convention.

The overlapping crises have hit during the busiest time of the year for Virginia’s part-time legislature, which is struggling through a stalemate over the state budget and tax code. There was a general sense of scandal fatigue in Richmond on Wednesday, as lawmakers tried to focus on hundreds of bills.

Democrats were conscious that if all three executives had to step down at once, next in the line of succession is a Republican: Cox, as speaker of the House.

“It’s a mess,” state Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake) said as he emerged from a closed-door meeting between the Black Caucus and Herring shortly before 11 a.m. Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) sent a text while she was in the meeting with Herring that said “This is freakin screwed up!” She was later in tears as she left the Capitol.

Asked about the cascading scandals, Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the Black Caucus, said, “I imagine we’re not praying enough.”

Del. Joseph C. Lindsey (D-Norfolk) said members of the Black Caucus are taking “a measured approach to learning the facts behind Herring’s revelation.”

“I guess I’m too old to react without knowing all the circumstances,” he said. “So we’re just taking a measured approach. We’re just taking this step by step.”

Virginia’s 400-year history of slavery, segregation and racial opression

Herring stepped down as co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association on Wednesday, the group said.

Karl A. Racine, the attorney general of the District of Columbia, said Herring called him early Wednesday.

“He took full responsibility for his clear mistake and assured me that his political aspirations would take a backseat to what is in the best interest of Virginians,” Racine said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Racine, who is black, said that he accepted an apology from Herring “because it was sincere and because I know of Mark’s consistent actions as attorney general to advocate for equal treatment under the law for all Virginians, regardless of their race, gender or other classification.”

Racine said he remains “proud to call Mark a friend and he continues to have my full support.”

The racist origins of blackface

Fritz Ruthling, who rushed the fraternity Sigma Chi with Herring during their freshman year at the University of Virginia and lived in the same dorm as Herring, said he was shocked to hear about Herring’s admission.

“I can’t speak to Mark’s mind, as to why he might have dressed up that way,” Ruthling said. “In my interactions with Mark, I’ve never known him to say anything racist at all.”

Herring, 57, won the 2013 attorney general’s race by defeating Republican state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham) by fewer than 200 votes. Before that, he had served in the state Senate and on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.

He became a hero to the left by refusing to enforce Virginia’s 2006 ban on same-sex marriage, placing the state at the center of the national debate.

Herring holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from U-Va. in economics and foreign affairs, and he graduated with honors from the University of Richmond School of Law.

During the years when Herring was an undergraduate at U-Va., the school’s yearbooks have many photos of elaborate costumes and heavy face paint in various colors from theme parties, such as a man dressed as an Egyptian with a headdress and what looks to be brown paint on his face, someone dressed as a clown with white face paint and red wig, and a Sigma Chi member wearing a pink tulle skirt for a charity fundraiser one year.

Fairfax and Herring had been seen as the top candidates to succeed Northam at the end of his four-year term in 2021; the Virginia constitution prohibits a governor from serving consecutive terms.

Susan Svrluga, Patricia Sullivan, Neena Satija, Aaron C. Davis, Antonio Olivo, Jenna Portnoy, Fenit Nirappil, Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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