Democrats in Virginia rocked by blackface and sexual assault scandals

Attorney general Herring admits dressing in blackface as Fairfax sex scandal emerges

Virginia’s politics has been plunged into disarray after a third member of the Democratic state leadership became embroiled in a deepening set of scandals that threatens to upset the party’s recent election gains there.

State attorney general Mark Herring admitted that he dressed in "blackface" at a college party in 1980, daubing his face with black shoe polish to impersonate a rapper.

Mr Herring was one of those who called for governor Ralph Northam to resign at the weekend after his college yearbook page was shown to contain a photograph of a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume.

Mr Northam first said he was one of the people in the photograph, but later said he was not. But in the latest twist in the ongoing saga, Mr Herring – who is second in line to the governor’s office – announced that he had also appeared in black face.


He apologised for “a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity”, after he met with African-American members of his party in a closed-door meeting at the state capitol in Richmond. “This was a one-time occurrence and I accept full responsibility for my conduct.”


His admission came as the state lieutenant governor – who is first in line for the governor’s position if Mr Northam resigns – became embroiled in a separate sex scandal.

A woman claims that Justin Fairfax forced her to perform a sexual act on him in a hotel room during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. Mr Fairfax says that the encounter was consensual.

The allegations initially surfaced on Sunday, and it emerged that the Washington Post had been alerted to the story last year but did not have enough evidence to corroborate the claim. On Wednesday, Mr Fairfax's accuser, Vanessa Tyson, came forward and described the hotel room encounter with the 39-year-old lieutenant governor and former Democratic Party staffer.

Ms Tyson, an associate professor of politics at Scripps College in California said that "what began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault", as she outlined the series of events that she alleged took place in the room.

Mr Fairfax has called the allegations a "smear". Democrats, however, are under pressure to listen to women who allege to have been sexually assaulted in the past, particularly given the controversy surrounding supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the court last year after Dr Christine Blasey Ford made historical accusations of assault against him. Democrats stood behind Ms Blasey Ford, arguing that her complaints should be heard.


Julian Castro, the former housing secretary under the Obama presidency, who is running for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential election, became the most senior party figure to say he believed Mr Fairfax's accuser, though he refrained from calling for his resignation on Thursday.

The inter-locking scandals that have engulfed the top three Democrats in the state have plunged Virginia's politics into disarray. Should all three men resign, the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, would become the next governor. President Donald Trump weighed into the debate on Twitter on Thursday, claiming that Republicans would have handled the scandal differently.

"Democrats at the top are killing the Great State of Virginia, " he wrote. "If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken."

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent