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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring sits down with Kojo in his first interview since scandals enveloped the top three officials in the Commonwealth.
Looking back, it was a month like no other in Virginia politics. In early February, Governor Ralph Northam was exposed for racist images featuring blackface and KKK costumes on his medical school yearbook page. Attorney General Mark Herring called for Northam to resign only to later admit that he too wore blackface in college. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax was accused by two women of sexual assault. The scandals exposed fault lines within Virginia’s Democratic Party and raised questions about the Commonwealth’s line of succession. A month later, no one has resigned or otherwise left office.
Kojo speaks with Attorney General Herring about his actions, his response, how this affects his 2021 gubernatorial campaign, and whether he and his colleagues can lead in the aftermath of scandal.
Produced by Mark Gunnery
- Mark Herring Attorney General, Virginia (D); @MarkHerringVA
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the show we'll talk about how small theaters are surviving in a quickly changing D.C. in the first of a series on arts and gentrification.
KOJO NNAMDILast month was a dramatic one in Virginia politics as the Commonwealth legislature debated everything from ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to changing the age to purchase tobacco, the eyes of the nation were on the top three elected officials in Virginia, because of widely publicized scandals. Governor Ralph Northam admitted to wearing blackface in medical school and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by two women, charges he denies.
KOJO NNAMDIIn the midst of this, Attorney General Mark Herring announced that he too wore blackface as a young man. He joins us in studio for his first sit down interview since announcing and apologizing for this action. Attorney General Mark Herring, thank you for joining us.
MARK HERRINGThank you for having me on the show.
NNAMDIThis past month was a very long one in Virginia politics. You announced that in 1980, you wore blackface. For people who don't know, what exactly did you wear blackface for when you were 19 years old?
HERRINGWell, back in 1980 when I was 19 years old, some friends and I had dressed up as rappers to go to a party, and it was a terrible decision. Blackface is always wrong and I am ashamed to say that at 19 years old in 1980 I did not know that. I have learned not long after that how it's wrong, why it's wrong. It is wrong because it is a dehumanization of people of color and a minimization of an oppressive history, and I am ashamed to say that at 19 in 1980 I did not know that. Soon after I began to widen my circle of friends, I studied a lot of history and politics and literature and other things.
HERRINGAnd could see why it was wrong and that one incident in no way reflected the young man I matured into. Let alone the public servant that I became decades later, but I did it and I am so very sorry for the additional hurt and pain that a shameful act in my past has added to Virginians especially African American Virginians, who have placed their trust in me.
NNAMDIThe Associated Press reported last month that there were rumors circulating around the capital of a photo of you wearing blackface. Do you know if there is in fact a photo?
HERRINGYou know, I don't. I've spoken to some college friends about it to see if they had remembered the event as I did. They did remember. They did not have a photo so I don't know if there was a photo, but, you know, it was a really -- a tough time for Virginians and I myself struggled with what to do. When the governor's medical school yearbook photo came out that Friday night I was shocked as I'm sure everyone was. Shocked also when the governor admitted that he was in the photo and apologized for it.
HERRINGAnd I was also I thinking, would I need to have a reckoning, a public reckoning for something I had done in my past? The next day the governor came out with a different account and a contradictory account, which, you know, led to an evaporation of a lot of trust especially public trust in the people whose support he would need to be effective, which is when I came out with a statement about it.
HERRINGBut I really wrestled with what to do given what I had done, and talked to my family about it. I talked to a couple of college friends about it. I was really agonizing over the hurt that I knew revealing this would have. But ultimately I felt it was something I needed to do. The more I thought about it, the more I needed to do. And, you know, there were a lot of rumors swirling around. And, you know, reporter questions, but this was something that I felt I needed to come forward with if I was going to be able to maintain my credibility.
NNAMDIAnother rumor that's swirling around is that you had worn blackface prior to that event when you were playing Kurtis Blow.
HERRINGI was -- that was -- it was a one-time occurrence and it is something that has haunted me for decades. And I am so very sorry for the hurt that I've caused.
NNAMDINevertheless you had called for Governor Ralph Northam's resignation after his yearbook photo page surfaced. Did you know about the possibility of a photo of you or did you remember that you had worn blackface prior to making that statement about Northam?
HERRINGWell, yeah, as I said a few minutes ago, when the governor's yearbook photo came out that Friday night, I was shocked and also crushed for Virginia, because I knew how much that was going to hurt and how much -- the wounds that would be reopened with that. And the governor had said that he was in the photo. He apologized for it, and when that came out I also thought whether I would need to have a public reckoning for that. The next day the governor came out with a different and a contradictory account. And that was when there was an erosion of trust, and that was really what my statement was about that Saturday night.
HERRINGIt was really that the trust of people who he would need to have in order to govern effectively going forward had evaporated. And so for me it was really about the public trust. And I want to be clear about this. I would hold myself to the same standard if something that I did led to an irretrievable breach of the public trust. To where I lost the support of people I would need in order to do the job effectively, you know, I would do what was right for Virginians.
NNAMDIDo you still think that Governor Northam should resign and if you do, why did you think his actions warranted a resignation, but yours did not?
HERRINGWell, the governor has made up his mind. He's decided that he is going to continue on and is doing what he thinks he needs to do. What I was trying to do is be as honest as I could about what I did to let people know how sorry I am for it. That I know and understand that it was wrong and why it is wrong. And that I want to do whatever I can in order to repair the damage that has been caused over the past few weeks.
NNAMDIYou seem to be suggesting that since the governor has decided he will stay on you are going to remove yourself from that conversation or are you still thinking that the governor should resign?
HERRINGWell, the governor -- as I said, I think the governor has decided what he's going to do. What I've tried to stay focused on is what Virginians expect of me and I've spent the last four weeks or so apologizing to Virginians, many of them directly. I've spoken with legislators, local community officials, friends, folks all over the state. I wanted to apologize directly to them. I wanted to hear about how they were feeling about this, and whether they still trusted me to continue to do the job effectively.
HERRINGThat listening -- I've done a lot of listening. And as you might expect there were a range of emotions, but one consistent theme that runs through all of those conversations is a real desire on the part of Virginians to take this moment, this renewed focus on race in Virginia and try to make some good come of this. That maybe we can have a more honest dialogue about our nation's history and the legacy of white privilege and institutional and systemic racism that persists today as a result of that. And not just talk about our history in more honest way, but also specific ways that we might be able to rectify the ongoing discrimination that happens.
NNAMDIOur guest today is Mark Herring. He is the attorney general of Virginia. What do you think of the scandals that Virginia's top three elected officials have been involved in over the past month? This began after Governor Northam made some comments about abortion that angered pro-life people, one of whom surfaced the yearbook picture. Would you say that this was all politically motived and does that make any difference given the fact that you both admitted to wearing blackface?
HERRINGWell, what I think is that something I did when I was 19 years old was terribly wrong. And the revelation of it now has added to and compounded the hurt that was already being felt by so many Virginians. And that's really the point here is that what I did was wrong. I am so very sorry for it, and I am going to continue to listen to Virginians to see if I might have a role in addressing the hurt that has happened and find some way to begin to do even more than what we've already been doing to address ongoing racism that we know persists today.
NNAMDIHow does that affect the politics of Virginia? We frankly heard from the RNC about your appearance the day they had some questions that they would have liked me to ask you. But as I said earlier, because of Governor Northam's pro-life comments, it would appear that there was some relationship certainly between him being uncovered so to speak and the other scandals that generated. What's the politics here?
HERRINGWell, you know, I really don't know about that. What I know is that Friday night when the governor's yearbook photo came out, everyone was shocked. It caused a lot of hurt. I was crushed for Virginia and then I also thought about, am I going to need to come forward, and let people know about what I had done almost 40 years earlier. Ultimately I concluded and really agonized over that, struggled with it, thought about, you know, what do I say, how do say it, when do I say it, and ultimately felt that it was important to do to maintain my credibility. And there was some people that I wanted to make sure they heard directly from me first. So I met with Virginia Legislator Black Caucus before I released a statement.
NNAMDIWell, the Virginia GOP tweets in, "Why did you only schedule your meeting with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus after the Associated Press contacted you?"
HERRINGYou know, there were a lot of rumors swirling around and I had decided that I needed to come forward with this information. Sure, we had gotten some press inquiries, but this was something that I needed to bring forward. I was prepared for the consequences. I wrote a very careful statement, because it was important to get my thoughts out exactly the way I wanted to. There were people that I wanted to meet with first to make sure that they heard directly from me so I could apologize to them and let them know what had happened. And that's kind of how it happened.
NNAMDIHere now is Christine in Arlington, Virginia. Christine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISTINEHi. Thank you for taking my call. I live in Virginia obviously and when the governor's blackface situation happened, Mr. Northam very clearly said, The governor must resign.
NNAMDINo, that was not Mr. Northam. That was Mr. Herring.
CHRISTINEMr. Herring said the governor must resign. He's not holding himself to the same standard and he never answered your question. Does he still think the governor should resign and why is he not holding himself to the same standard. Out of the three situations, you, sir, are the one who very clearly said, "The governor must resign."
NNAMDIAttorney General Herring.
HERRINGSo let me just go back again and say that when the governor's medical school yearbook photo came out, I issued a statement that was -- that expressed how that action -- I condemned that action as I have done my own, but I stopped short of calling for his resignation. The next day he came out with a different and a contradictory account, and that led to an erosion of the public trust including the trust of those whose support he would need in order to govern effectively. And so for me it was about that public trust and the support of those he would need. And that's when I issued the statement that I didn't think he could lead going forward.
HERRINGAnd that's the standard that I would hold myself to, which is if I do something that results in a complete and irretrievable breach of trust with the public and those whose support I would need to do the job effectively, I would hold myself to the same standard.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we will continue this conversation with Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Mark Herring. He is the Attorney General of Virginia. We got a tweet from Roger who says, "I could really care less what a 19 year old did in 1980 and I hardly think it's scandal. I think people like Kojo are blowing this way out of proportion. Yet for some reason, he's glossing over the sexual assault of Mr. Fairfax." Well, let me attempt to correct that right now. Mark Herring, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax is also facing calls to resign over allegations of sexual assault, allegations, which he denies. What do you think should happen there? And should he resign?
HERRINGWell, that's a different, but very difficult situation. Two women have come forward with very serious allegations, criminal allegations -- criminal if true. And they deserve to be heard. They deserve to be treated with respect. And as attorney general this is an area where I have worked a lot on particularly on college campuses to make sure that those who have allegations of sexual assault are treated with respect that they deserve. I think all parties want some type of impartial investigation. I think that's what should happen. The difficult thing is how does it happen?
HERRINGMy understanding is the two women have not filed criminal complaints. The allegations are alleged to have happened in North Carolina and Massachusetts. And so I think that's really the difficult question is how can an impartial investigation happen? I do favor some mechanism to have a path to get the facts out.
NNAMDIFairfax seemed to compare himself to lynching victims last week on the Senate floor saying, quoting here, "We stand here in a rush to judgement with nothing but accusations and no facts." As Virginia's top lawyer, what do make of that?
HERRINGWell, again, I think what needs to happen is some type of impartial investigation so we can get to the facts. But in the current situation it's hard to see exactly how that takes place. And I know that for everyone it's kind of an excruciating position to be in where people want to get the facts. But we don't yet know exactly what that's going to look like or how it's going to happen. But it's something that needs to take place.
NNAMDIWell, I got an emailer and a caller who seem to be along the same theme. So let me go with the emailer first, "As an African American, I'm not surprised by the blackface revelations of our top Virginia officials. It's disappointing and his PR response has been a complete disaster. That said, we should assess the man by the totality of his work. And there is no question concerning the governor's positive engagement on issues that adversely affect African Americans." And then here is Rafika in Virginia. Rafika, your turn.
RAFIKAHi. Thanks for taking my call. I wanted to reiterate what you're emailer said. I fully support the governor and the lieutenant -- I'm sorry and the attorney general, Mark Herring. I feel like they're track record has completely exonerated them of something they did when they were very very young. If all of us were called upon to atone for all of our youthful mistakes, none of us would be in positions of leadership.
RAFIKAThe other point I'd like to make is that while we scrutinize every sneeze and cough by a democrat, it seems like the republican administration, which has thrown in its hat with neo-Nazis and white supremacists and the republicans in Congress and the Senate, who are doing nothing to stop this administration, get away scot free. And I think that is completely idiotic.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you raised that issue, because, Mark Herring, some republicans are suggesting that you, Northam, and Fairfax did not step down because democrats are focused on keeping these posts out of republican hands. Is it more important that these officials be democrats no matter what?
HERRINGWell, it's really about what best for Virginians and as both the caller and the email pointed out, I'm not a 19 year-old. And soon after that embarrassing and shameful incident in college, I did change. I read a lot of history in economics and politics and I widened my circle of friends. I learned Arabic. I studied in Jordan. I reconnected with my faith and the person that I was going into college -- I was very different when I finished my studies.
HERRINGAnd as a public official when I was a county supervisor, worked hard to preserve African American cultural and historic resources, as a state senator, worked hard to protect voting rights and health care. And as attorney general, I've worked hard to address a lot of the ongoing institutional racism that we see in our criminal justice system with different drug policy, with cash bail reform, with reentry.
HERRINGTwice went to the Supreme Court to defend Governor McCullough historic action to restore and re-enfranchise voting rights of over 150,000 Virginians. And I think what we need to do is also take look and be honest about our history. The legacy of racism and how that manifests itself in so many different ways and look at what else we can do. Whether it is with confederate monuments and other reminders of that past that need to be dealt with, and localities need the authority to be able to decide the future of those.
HERRINGWe need to do more on addressing the criminal justice reforms. You know, in Virginia the African American population is about 19 percent, but 58 percent of our prison population. On poverty, 18.8 percent of African Americans are living in poverty or Virginians are living in poverty. While 8.8 percent of white Virginians, Majority African American communities are suffering eviction rates at four times the national average. We still have minority achievement gaps in education and healthcare.
HERRINGThere are a lot of things that we need to do. There's a lot of work to do. A lot of work in telling our history more accurately and a lot to do to address the ongoing institutional and systemic racism that we see that persists throughout Virginia and elsewhere. And that is the work that lies ahead.
NNAMDIGovernor Northam has announced what's been called a "Listening Tour", an apology tour, but he had to cancel the first event after Virginian Union university student government asked him not to attend the chapel service honoring Civil Rights protestors. Now here for you is a question from Phil in Fairfax, Virginia. Phil, your turn.
PHILThanks, Kojo. Attorney general, I'm a liberal democrat here in Northern Virginia, supported the democratic ticket. Certainly think you guys, the two of you, the governor and yourself should resign. I think Justin Fairfax is a separate case. But you said you'd like to talk about, you know, steps going forward. So my question is given the fact that slavery really took roots here first in the Commonwealth, isn't it time to start to talk about some concrete kind of plan for reparations or something of that. Sir, what do you think?
HERRINGWell, we do need to start from that point, which is -- and this is the 400th anniversary of African Americans being brought in chains to Virginia and the institution of slavery. And it spread quickly and ultimately we had four million people enslaved in this country. And that didn't end with the Civil War. The slavery ended officially, but as so many historians and observers have noted, Jim Crowe followed and segregation, and now mass incarceration and ongoing institutional and systemic racism that we have got to address. And so that's the starting point is to acknowledge that history, to talk honestly about it, And to make sure that we know that there are legacies of that that persist today and to identify and rectify the ongoing racial inequities that exist today.
NNAMDIWe got an email from AJ who said, "Since Tom Sherwood is not on the program today, I'll ask the question for him. Does the attorney general still plan to run for governor in the next election?" In December of last year you announced the 2021 Gubernatorial Bid. Are you still moving ahead with your campaign?
HERRINGWell, that is the last thing I am thinking about. Honestly, I am not thinking about that at all. What I am focused on is what has happened in Virginia over the last month. And what I might be able to do to repair the damage. That is where I am going to be focused. That started with first of all acknowledging and admitting what I did. Letting people know how sorry I am for it and that I know it's wrong and why it was wrong. Also listening to how it's made other people feel about how I might be able to have some role in trying to repair that harm. And that's really where I'm going to stay focused going forward.
NNAMDIThe three top elected officials in Virginia are embroiled in scandal and controversy and while some reporting including a Washington Post article this morning suggests Virginians are not that concerned, what in your view has this meant for the business of Virginia getting done?
HERRINGWell, we're going to continue to do the business of Virginia, you know, but we also have to recognize that what has happened in Virginia has been painful. It is serious, and it deserves a lot of focused attention and needs to continue that focused attention that I'm going to give it. And that needs to be a main focus for me and for my team and the attorney general's office.
NNAMDIGot to go to a break, but I wanted to ask your thoughts on the Equal Rights Amendment. Virginia would have been the final state needed for it to be ratified nationwide. It failed to advance in the Virginia legislature, but many were surprised to see it revived at all. What would it mean to women and Virginians if it were to succeed in some form in the future?
HERRINGOh, well, I'm so disappointed that it did not pass. It is something that should have happened ago. This is something that would protect women's right, but really everyone's rights. And wouldn't it have been great if Virginia had been the 38th state and put us over the top? And I think that points to, you know, just how important it is, who we elect as our legislators. The ERA failed. A number of gun safety measures that were brought forward were defeated by republicans in the legislature and so there's still a lot of work ahead.
NNAMDIMark Herring is the attorney general of Virginia. This was his first sit down conversation since the scandals erupted in the Commonwealth. My suspicion is it won't be the last. Mark Herring, thank you for joining us.
HERRINGThank you for having me.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk about small theaters are surviving in a quickly changing Washington region in the first of a series on arts and gentrification. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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