Legal Ethics

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring apologized Wednesday for dressing up in a wig and brown makeup to look like a rapper at a party in 1980—now the third scandal to rock the state’s leadership in less than a week.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam currently faces calls for his resignation after a photo emerged Friday in his 1984 medical school yearbook page featuring someone in blackface standing next to someone in Ku Klux Klan robes. And Monday, Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax denied allegations from a woman who said he sexually assaulted her at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and CNN have coverage.

NPR also reported Tuesday that the woman has hired Washington, D.C.-based firm Katz, Marshall and Banks—the same law firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford in her allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Herring, third in command in state government, said in a statement released Wednesday that he was 19 at the time and an undergraduate in college, and “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. It was really a minimization of both people of color and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.”

Herring also admitted in his statement he knew the photo would eventually surface 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.” He announced in December that he planned to run for governor in 2021.

Herring also said he has felt an obligation to address racial inequities and systemic racism that exist in the criminal justice system, election processes and other institutions of power as both a senator and attorney general.

“I have long supported efforts to empower communities of color by fighting for access to health care, making it easier and simpler to vote, and twice defended the historic re-enfranchisement of former felons before the Supreme Court of Virginia,” he said in his statement. “I have launched efforts to make our criminal justice system more just, fair and equal by addressing implicit bias in law enforcement, establishing Virginia’s first-ever program to improve re-entry programs in local jails, and pushing efforts to reform the use of cash bail. And I have tried to combat the rise in hate crimes and white supremacist violence that is plaguing our commonwealth and our country.”

Herring said it soon will become clear whether he can continue to serve as attorney general, but he said “from the bottom of my heart, I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation.”

According to the Washington Post, if Northam, Fairfax and Herring all were compromised by scandal and forced to step down, and if no other successors were appointed, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would become the governor. This would change control of the executive mansion because Northam, Fairfax and Herring are Democrats.

However, the Washington Post also said while virtually all Virginia’s leaders, including Herring, and national Democrats have called on Northam to resign, Northam continues to meet with staff and administration officials to explore whether he can continue to govern.