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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring Admits To Wearing Blackface In The '80s


Another day, another astounding revelation about a high-ranking Virginia Democrat. This Russian nesting doll of a scandal began last week with Governor Ralph Northam, a racist yearbook photo and his admission that he appeared in blackface at a dance contest decades ago. That prompted nearly universal calls for his resignation from fellow Democrats. Northam has not resigned. The man who would replace him, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, is facing an allegation of sexual assault, which he denies.


Meanwhile, the latest today - the man third in line for governor of Virginia - that would be Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring - announced that he, too, has appeared in blackface in the past. NPR's Sarah McCammon has been following all this. Sarah, my jaw hit at this latest twist today, so start there with the attorney general. What does he say happened?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Right, so Mark Herring released a lengthy statement today admitting to wearing blackface at a party in 1980 when he was a 19-year-old college undergrad. He says he went dressed like rappers he listened to at the time and wore a wig and applied brown makeup to his face. For that, he says he's deeply sorry. And he said in the statement that as a young man, he showed a, quote, "callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others."

And Mary Louise, of course this is important - right? - because the governor, Ralph Northam, is under fire after that photo of a person in blackface in his medical school yearbook page surfaced...

KELLY: Right.

MCCAMMON: ...Which of course Northam now says was not him, though he says he did appear in blackface as part of a costume around the same time. And Democrats, including Mark Herring, who came out today with his own past history and an apology, have called on Northam to resign.

KELLY: And where does that stand, I mean, in terms of calls for Governor Northam to resign or in terms of what Lieutenant Governor Fairfax might do next? Have they given any update?

MCCAMMON: Right, so Ralph Northam, the governor, has remained really tight-lipped the last couple of days. We know he's had a few meetings with staff, but he's stayed very quiet. The lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, is facing his own scandal, a sexual assault allegation that he denies. Today he put out a new statement responding in more detail to that allegation, which is that he sexually assaulted a woman named Vanessa Tyson in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. She says what began as consensual kissing quickly escalated to a nonconsensual encounter.

Now, in today's statement, Fairfax calls Tyson's allegations surprising and hurtful and reiterates that, he says, the encounter was consensual. Fairfax also said in the statement that he wanted to emphasize, quote, "how important it is for us to listen to women when they come forward with allegations of sexual assault or harassment."

KELLY: I'll just insert here that yesterday we were not naming Tyson because she had not come forward publicly.


KELLY: She now has made that decision to come forward publicly, so we're using her name. What more do we know about her version of events?

MCCAMMON: Well, Vanessa Tyson is a politics professor at Scripps College in California, currently a fellow at Stanford. She's hired a Washington, D.C., law firm, the same one that represented Christine Blasey Ford when she came forward against Supreme Court Justice - then nominee, now Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings.

And Vanessa Tyson first approached The Washington Post with her story, this accusation against Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, more than a year ago. But the Post says they looked into it, couldn't corroborate either version and decided not to publish. And now today in a statement from her legal team, Tyson says she's coming forward with tremendous anguish out of a desire to set the record straight.

And one last thing, Mary Louise - our member station in Richmond, WCVE, has learned that Fairfax has hired the firm Wilkinson Walsh and Eskovitz, which last year is the same firm that represented Brett Kavanaugh when he was being accused by Christine Blasey Ford.

KELLY: A lot of lawyering up there. This is a whole lot to be going on in one state. What is the state of conversation? What's the reaction in Richmond?

MCCAMMON: Well, it's been a big distraction. You have the three top state officials embroiled in some level of scandal. I've heard that it's been chaotic today. And all three of these leaders are Democrats, so it's really putting the party in turmoil at a time when they'd been hoping to make some gains. They'd made a lot of gains in 2017 and were hoping to make more. So it's been a very weird political moment in Virginia, and there's no end in sight at this point.

KELLY: OK, NPR's Sarah McCammon, thanks very much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.