Virginia Attorney-General Mark Herring, D, said today that he dressed in blackface during college, elevating the Capitol's scandals to a new level that engulfed the entire executive branch of government.

"In 1980, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college, some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song," Herring said in a statement.

"It sounds ridiculous even now writing it. But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes - and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others - we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup."

Herring called it a "onetime occurrence" for which he accepted responsibility.


"That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behaviour could inflict on others," Herring said.

"It was really a minimisation of both people of colour, and a minimisation of a horrific history I knew well even then."

In his statement, Herring suggested that he knew the photo would someday surface.

"I have a glaring example from my past that I have thought about with deep regret in the many years since, and certainly each time I took a step forward in public service, realising that my goals and this memory could someday collide 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," said Herring, who announced in December that he planned to run for governor in 2021.

Herring's acknowledgment comes as Governor Ralph Northam, D, faces calls for his resignation after a photo emerged on his 1984 medical school yearbook page featuring someone in blackface standing next to someone in Ku Klux Klan robes.

And on Tuesday, Lieutenant-Governor Justin Fairfax, D, denied the allegations of a woman who said he sexually assaulted her at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

If Northam should step down, Fairfax would succeed him because of his position as lieutenant-governor. Herring, as attorney-general, would be next in line.

"It's a mess," said state Senator Lionell Spruill, D, as he emerged from the attorney-general's office building. An aide stopped him from saying more.


Most of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, stone faced, left Herring's office and went directly into a meeting at the Capitol building. They said nothing and ignored a reporter who asked if they supported Herring.

Lamont Bagby, chairman of the caucus, asked about the cascading scandals, said: "I imagine we're not praying enough."

State Senator Louise Lucas, D, sent a text while she was in the meeting with Herring that said: "This is freakin' screwed up!"

Virginia's capital has absorbed one shocking blow after another, and while Herring had issued a statement calling for Northam to resign, he had not been seen or heard from publicly since then.

The Legislative Black Caucus, which has also called on Northam to resign, cancelled a press conference as rumours spread that another bombshell was about to drop.

Most have withheld judgment on Fairfax, who has maintained that the incident at the centre of the sexual harrassment charge was consensual.

Northam has retracted his initial statement that he was in the racist yearbook photo, saying now that it is not him and he doesn't know how the picture got there. But he admitted wearing blackface later in 1984 to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest.

Virtually all of Virginia's political establishment - including Herring - has called on Northam to resign, as have national Democrats. But he continues to meet staff and administration officials to explore whether he can continue to govern.

Herring, 57, won the 2013 state attorney-general's race by defeating Republican state Senator Mark Obenshain by fewer than 200 votes.

He became a hero to the left by refusing to enforce Virginia's 2006 ban on gay marriage, placing the state at the centre of the national debate.

The controversies are all the more shocking because they hit popular politicians who have been riding high on Virginia's recent Democratic surge.

The party's gains in recent state elections nearly wiped out a generation-long GOP majority in the House of Delegates, and Democrats have been confident about regaining control of the legislature this fall, when all 140 General Assembly seats are on the ballot.

The scandals have opened up raw nerves on issues of race and unresolved issues about Virginia's past as the capital of the Confederacy and a hub of the slave trade.

They come as Democrats nationwide are clamoring for more accountability in areas of past racial and sexual conduct, and are consuming a generation of Virginia's top Democratic leaders.