Gov. Ralph Northam said Thursday that he is “proud to stand” with Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, in his bid to become Virginia’s next attorney general and the first African American to hold the office.
Northam’s endorsement comes as a high-profile snub of current Attorney General Mark Herring, who is seeking a third term against Jones, his opponent in a June Democratic primary.
“It is time for a new generation of leaders to take the reins,” Northam said in a statement. “He has been my partner as we have worked to change our Commonwealth. He also understands the deep scars of racism and will represent the diversity of our Commonwealth.”
A political aide for Northam, Mark Bergman, said Northam has a long, personal relationship with Jones and his family, and a desire to see Hampton Roads represented in the Democratic ticket for statewide offices. Northam is from the Eastern Shore.
Jones said in an interview that the endorsement was a boost for his attempt to unseat the incumbent and become the party’s nominee.
“The governor believes in our energy, our passion, our conviction and our vision for this office in this new Virginia decade,” Jones said. “We certainly expect him to have more involvement in the campaign as the weeks march on and we get closer to the primary.”
Virginia is electing a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general this year; all 100 House seats are also on the ballot.
Like Northam, Herring was involved in a race-based scandal in February 2019. After Herring called for Northam to resign over the governor’s response to disclosure of a racist photo on Northam’s medical school yearbook page, Herring disclosed that as a student at the University of Virginia, he had worn blackface while dressing as a rapper for a party.
Jones, too, had called for Northam’s resignation, alongside the legislature’s Black caucus. During this year’s virtual special session, Jones gave a speech Feb. 24 in which he subtly indicated that he made a mistake by rushing to judgment on Northam in 2019.
“I still feel remorse over putting my name on a statement of condemnation before all the facts came to light. I’ve spent two years figuring out how to try to make that right,” Jones said in the speech.
“But even more importantly, I still regret not being more forceful in demanding accountability over deeply offensive hypocrisy that played out in front of all of our eyes.”
Asked if those comments were related to Northam and Herring, Jones said the question was “a pretty astute assessment” and said “people can read that or listen to it as they will. I was sharing my thoughts and my feelings as it relates to legacies.”
In an apparent effort to get ahead of Northam’s public endorsement of Jones, Herring had recently rolled out video endorsements from Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and from House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. Both are prominent African American leaders in the state.
Mark Herring did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Cassie Moreno, a campaign spokesperson, issued this statement: “A contested primary is the sign of a healthy Democratic Party of Virginia — and points to how we’ve been able to demonstrate the power of the office of Attorney General to make a difference for the people.”
Jones announced his candidacy in July, becoming the first to enter the contest. Lucas was among his initial supporters.
Lucas changed her allegiance to Mark Herring after he announced in September that he was dropping his bid for governor and would seek a third term as attorney general.
Jones also this week announced the endorsement of former Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, still the only woman elected to statewide office in Virginia. Terry was elected attorney general in 1985 and 1989 and lost the 1993 campaign for governor to Republican George Allen.
Jones was first elected in 2017 to the House seat formerly held by his father, Jerrauld Jones, a delegate from 1988 to 2002 who is now a Norfolk circuit judge.
Veteran political observer Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Northam’s endorsement reflects his close relationship with Jerrauld Jones.
Northam has known Jay Jones for most of this life, Sabato said. “I think that’s a big part of it. That’s a personal connection there.”
Sabato said Northam recognizes that the Democratic ticket has to include someone of color. Endorsing Jones “actually makes it easier for Northam to endorse McAuliffe,” he said, referring to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, one of five Democrats seeking the party’s nomination for governor.
Still, he said, “It did surprise me at first because it’s such a slap in the face for Herring.”
The endorsement also reflects the governor’s effort to recast his legacy after the blackface scandal as a progressive triumph.
“Northam has decided that the way to fully recover from his tremendous embarrassment is to really accomplish something for the Black community,” Sabato said. “And this is significant. We’ve never had a Black attorney general.”
He said one telltale sign is Jones’ characterization of Northam’s term in the announcement as the “most consequential governor in the history of this commonwealth.”
Staff writer Michael Martz contributed to this report.