Blackface, sex assault scandals shake top Virginia Democrats

By Gary Robertson
Blackface, sex assault scandals shake top Virginia Democrats

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Virginia's attorney general on Wednesday admitted he wore blackface at a college party, becoming the state's third high-ranking Democrat caught up in scandal since the release of a racist photo from Governor Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook.

Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement that he donned brown face paint at a party in 1980 to impersonate a rapper. Northam admitted last weekend to having worn blackface - a practice that dates to 19th century minstrel shows caricaturing slaves - in 1984 to impersonate Michael Jackson.

U.S. Democrats have become increasingly focused on promoting diversity and rooting out patterns of sexual misconduct in many American institutions. In that context, Northam's admission sparked immediate calls for his resignation from fellow Virginia Democrats and national political figures, including at least five 2020 White House candidates.

A separate scandal relating to Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who is black and would succeed Northam were he to step down, intensified on Wednesday when a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

The woman, Vanessa Tyson, in a statement issued by Washington law firm Katz, Marshall & Banks said that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room at the time.

"I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual," Tyson said in the statement, which was published by multiple U.S. media outlets. The law firm did not immediately respond to a request for a copy of the statement.

A conservative website first reported Tyson's allegations on Monday.

Fairfax maintained in a statement on Wednesday that incident was consensual.

"I wish her no harm or humiliation, nor do I seek to denigrate her or diminish her voice," Fairfax said in a statement on Wednesday. "But I cannot agree with a description of events that I know is not true."

Elected officials in both parties have recently seen their careers ended by allegations of racism and sexual misconduct.

Florida's Republican secretary of state last month resigned after a newspaper published a photo of him wearing blackface at a 2005 costume party.

Democratic U.S. Senator Al Franken resigned in 2017 after being accused of sexual misconduct.

Herring, who like Northam is white and is second in line to succeed the governor after Fairfax, had last week called for Northam to resign.

Herring said in a statement on Wednesday he now realized he showed poor judgment by dressing as a rapper and donning a wig and brown makeup to perform a song with similarly attired friends.

"I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others," he said.


The days of allegations rattled the Democratic leadership of Virginia, a key swing state that will be a major focus in the 2020 presidential campaign.

"I'm still processing it myself," Monique Alcala, the president of the state party's Latino caucus, said in a telephone interview. She said Democrats would end up calling for Herring to resign too.

Lawmakers largely ducked reporters as they left the state capitol in Richmond following Wednesday's legislative session.

Northam on Friday apologized and said he was one of the people in the photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook that depicted a person in blackface makeup standing beside another person garbed in white robes of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.

He changed his story a day later, saying neither figure in the picture was him but acknowledging he had dressed in blackface to portray pop star Michael Jackson.

The origins of blackface date to 19th-century "minstrel" shows in which white performers covered their faces in black grease paint to caricature slaves. Blackface remained a trope of Hollywood entertainment into the mid-1980s, including comic movie "Soul Man" featuring a protagonist who posed as black to get into an Ivy League college.

After Fairfax, 39, and Herring, 57, the next in the line of succession for the governorship is state House speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican.

(Writing by Jonathan Allen; editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)