Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, charged in a Democratic primary debate Saturday night that Attorney General Mark Herring only apologized to the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus for having worn blackface as a teenager in order to salvage his political future.
During the hourlong face-off at WTVR TV 6 in Richmond Herring asserted that Jones had proposed flawed legislation to create a civil rights office, as well as a bill that would have let “predatory lenders” charge customers high interest rates.
Herring and Jones met in a sometimes combative debate less than a month before Democrats pick their statewide nominees in a June 8 primary.
Herring disclosed to the Legislative Black Caucus in February 2019 that he had worn blackface once while dressing as a rapper for a party at the University of Virginia. Herring made his disclosure and apology after he had called for Gov. Ralph Northam to step down following reports about a racist photo on Northam’s medical school yearbook page.
“What bothers me is that your newfound commitment” to civil rights “seems to only have arisen after your incident with blackface two years ago,” Jones said Saturday night. “And it’s not that you wore blackface that bothers me,” Jones said. “It is that empty apology that you gave us that was done to save your political career.”
Herring had said during a previous debate that the incident at UVA does not reflect “the person I matured into” or his later actions in public office.
He said Saturday that during his two terms as attorney general he has made protecting and expanding Virginians’ civil rights “a cornerstone of my administration.”
Jones, who has been endorsed by Northam, has called for a more expansive view of the attorney general’s role, what he calls a “forward-looking” approach in order to “meet this moment” of racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota.
Jones says that as attorney general he would take a more active role in investigating police use of force as in the fatal shooting of Donovon Lynch in Virginia Beach and the shooting of Isiah Brown in Spotsylvania County.
Herring presented himself Saturday as a seasoned attorney general who has won statewide twice and has fought in court for marriage equality, for women’s rights, to protect the state’s new gun restrictions and to combat gerrymandered legislative districts.
“We have a clear choice here in Virginia,” Herring said, adding: “I can keep this job in Democratic hands.”
The Democratic nominee will face Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, who topped three other candidates in the GOP’s state convention.
In a week that saw drivers searching for gasoline after the hack of the Colonial Pipeline, Herring and Jones vowed to combat price gouging and Herring said he has done so during COVID-19.
Both also expressed concerns about delays at the Virginia Employment Commission in getting people jobless benefits.
“We have seen some serious issues at the Virginia Employment Commission,” Jones said.
Herring added: “They need to pay the benefits that are due people.”
Herring initially planned to seek the Democratic nomination for governor. In September he advised Jones and other potential candidates that he would instead seek a third term as attorney general.
Jones, 32, a delegate since 2018, holds the same seat his father, former Del. Jerrauld Jones, held from 1988-2002. Jerrauld Jones is now a Norfolk Circuit Court judge.
Herring, 59, served on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors from 2000 to 2003 and was a member of the state Senate from 2006 to 2014, the year he became attorney general.
Republicans held the office of attorney general from 1994 until Herring took office in 2014. Herring would be the first person elected to three full terms as attorney general since Abram Penn Staples, who held the office from 1934 to 1947.