The racism and rape scandals engulfing Virginia’s top Democrats spread Wednesday to state Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted wearing blackface at a college party in 1980.
Getting in front of the issue by revealing it himself, Mr. Herring said that donning blackface to perform as a rap singer “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.”
The disgrace that tarnished Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and now Mr. Herring cast a pall over the Democratic Party’s chances in this year’s elections in which every General Assembly seat is up for grabs, likely helping Republicans hold on to their thin majority.
With the trio of scandal-tarred leaders potentially staying in office for another three years — Mr. Northam is rebuffing calls to resign — a backlash from black and female voters could even affect the 2020 elections in a state that only recently realigned from Republican to Democratic.
Mr. Herring, who was 19 when he and some friends dressed up as rap singers, said it was “a one-time occurrence, and I accept full responsibility for my conduct.”
The idea was to perform as some of the early rap singers, such as Kurtis Blow, whom they listened to at the time, he said.
SEE ALSO: Vanessa Tyson told Bobby Scott about Justin Fairfax allegations over a year ago: Report
The attorney general’s disclosure followed five days of political turmoil in Richmond since a photo of someone in blackface standing beside someone in a Ku Klux Klan costume was linked to Mr. Northam, who denied he was in the photo but confessed to wearing blackface when dressing as Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984.
Then his heir apparent, Mr. Fairfax, was accused of sexual assault by California political science professor Vanessa Tyson. She said he forced her to perform oral sex when they were both campaign aides at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Mr. Fairfax said the sex was consensual, but the accusation cast a cloud over his possible rise to governor.
The rape accusation immediately drew comparisons to accusations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, though Democratic elected officials in Washington this time avoided weighing in.
Ms. Tyson released a statement through her attorney that detailed the event, denied the sex was consensual and rebutted Mr. Fairfax’s claim that she was part of a political “smear.”
“I have no political motive. I am a proud Democrat,” Ms. Tyson wrote.
Just days ago, Mr. Herring, the attorney general, urged Mr. Northam to step down because of the governor’s blackface incident.
“It is no longer possible for Gov. Northam to lead our commonwealth, and it is time for him to step down,” Mr. Herring said Saturday. “I have spoken with Lt. Gov. Fairfax and assured him that, should he ascend to the governorship, he will have my complete support and commitment to ensuring his success and the success of our commonwealth.”
The attorney general is second in the line of succession for governor after the lieutenant governor. Mr. Northam, Mr. Fairfax and Mr. Herring are Democrats. The next official in the constitutional line of gubernatorial succession is House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at University of Mary Washington, said the deepening turmoil works in the governor’s favor.
“The odds are better than they were a few days ago that Gov. Northam will be able to stay in office,” he said. “The Democrats do not want all three Democrats to resign and make the Republican speaker of the House the next governor.”
Still, the Democratic Party will have a hard time wiggling out of the mess before elections this year, the professor said.
“The main Democratic argument in Virginia that powered the party’s huge gains in 2017 and 2018 centered around the character and suitability of President Trump. It’s going to be hard to make that same argument this year, at a time when the top three Democratic state officials are mired in three different scandals,” he said. “The one thing Democrats may have going for them is that many voters have short memories, and so perhaps something else will matter more than Northam’s scandal come November.”
Ms. Tyson’s statement Wednesday intensified the pressure on Mr. Fairfax.
The National Organization for Women called on him to resign. “This is more important than who is going to be the next governor of Virginia,” the group said.
Mr. Fairfax said Monday that the sex was “100 percent consensual” and described Ms. Tyson as “very interested in me” as soon as they met at the convention.
Ms. Tyson told a different story.
She said Mr. Fairfax invited her to accompany him to fetch some documents from his hotel room and then unexpectedly kissed her, and she kissed him back.
“What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault,” she wrote. “Mr. Fairfax put his hand behind my neck and forcefully pushed my head towards his crotch.”
Ms. Tyson provided a detailed account of how he forced her to perform oral sex, despite what she called her “obvious distress.”
“To be very clear, I did not want to engage in oral sex with Mr. Fairfax and I never gave any form of consent. Quite the opposite. I consciously avoided Mr. Fairfax for the remainder of the convention and I never spoke to him again,” she said.
In response, Mr. Fairfax said Ms. Tyson never indicated “discomfort” with the incident until years later.
“I’d like to begin by emphasizing how important it is for us to listen to women when they come forward with allegations of sexual assault or harassment,” he said in a statement. “As a former prosecutor and someone who is close with a number of women who are survivors of sexual assault, I know that many survivors of sexual assault suffer in silence, and it is absolutely essential to their healing and our healing as a culture that we give all survivors the space and support to voice their stories.”
However, Mr. Fairfax said he had a different recollection of the encounter.
“This has been an emotional couple of days for me and my family. And in my remarks on Monday, I think you could hear how emotional dealing with an allegation that I know is not true has been for me,” he said.
The photo that ignited the political blaze in Richmond was found on Mr. Northam’s profile page in his 1984 yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School.
The news site Big League Politics first reported on the racist yearbook photo. The same news organization also first reported Ms. Tyson’s rape allegation, which prompted her to go public.
Mr. Northam initially apologized for the yearbook photo, but a day later did an about-face and denied he was in the photo or wasn’t responsible for putting it in the yearbook.
The state Democratic Party, Virginia’s top elected officials and every Democratic candidate for president called for Mr. Northam to step down.
Rather than resign, though, Mr. Northam has hunkered down in the governor’s mansion.
Mr. Herring said the blackface controversy hit home for him.
“The very bright light that is shining on Virginia right now is sparking a painful but, I think we all hope, important conversation. The stakes are high and our spirits are low,” he said.