A few weeks have passed since scandals shook up Virginia politics, starting with the news that Governor Ralph Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) year book page included a photo of two men at a party. One of the men in the photo wore a KKK costume, the other blackface. Governor Northam could not, in the moment, definitively say he was not one of those people. So Northam admitted he may have been in the photo, then retracted that admission the next day.
Democrats in Virginia, myself included, lined upto ask the Governor to resign. It got worse after his “Moon Walk” press conference, and speculation started about who Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax would appoint to take his place as LG after he took Northam’s place. But then the second scandal popped: accusations of sexual harassment against Fairfax. This shifted discussions to succession in Virginia, and scenarios that would put House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox in the Governor’s mansion. Soon enough a third shoe dropped: Attorney General Mark Herring volunteered that he had once appeared in blackface himself.
Few asked Herring to step down. He’d volunteered himself as insensitive on race in his youth, and the Republican-controlled House of Delegates would choose his replacement. Herring also has a very good record on race that demonstrates personal growth on the issue. And few Democrats have any desire to see a GOP Attorney General. Subsequent revelations that Senate Majority Leader Tommy Normentalso had a blackface past didn’t hurt Herring’s case.
Governor Northam also seems to have survived his scandal. Black Caucus groups have shown support, and polls show little interest among Virginians to push him out. He’s kept his political coalition together, almost certainly with cover from Donald Trump. Anyone demanding Northam’s resignation loses moral authority unless they demand the same from Mr. “Good people on both sides.”
Fairfax is another matter. One accusation muddies his reputation, but two suggests a pattern, and one accuser told others contemporaneously – using the word “rape.” He could face no-kidding criminal exposure. Still, Fairfax claims the accusations against him are “demonstrably false.” What’s left of his political career depends on his hole card trumping his accusers’ hands.
It does not make sense for me to rescind my call for Governor Northam to resign. I still believe he wasted an opportunity during his earlier career to use his experience to have a discussion about race in Virginia we still need to have. He knew about the racial climate at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and EVMS during his academic career and he knew he had participated in insensitive behavior among students at both universities. He could have and should have used his own personal story to call it out and help move the entire Commonwealth forward on racial issues. He instead chose to bury it.
Events, however, have given him a second chance to lead that discussion. A “Racial Reconciliation” tour makes sense but piggybacking on commemoration events intended to honor those who protested exactly the kind of racism Northam took so lightly in his youth does not. He and Herring need to initiate their own discussion of Virginia’s racial past, what they’ve seen and done, and how their experiences changed them. They need to call out institutions, including VMI and ESMS, that not only permitted deplorable racial insensitivity but memorialized it in souvenir yearbooks and other institutional documents. They need to make sure minority communities don’t have to put up with dangerous and unnecessary infrastructure because history left them without the political power needed to stop it.
And let’s not ignore the fact that a serial racist and sexual abuser sits in the Oval Office. None of the people calling for Northam et al to step down make similar demands of Donald Trump, who has shown both racist and sexist insensitivity. Northam’s youth (and apparent drunkenness) doesn’t excuse his behavior in college, but he at least has avoided openly racist rhetoric while in office. Trump has not. GOP failure to police Republican leaders does not mean Democrats should ignore racism and sexism in their own Party, but it does give them cover.It’s time to have the conversation on racism and sexism we’ve needed in the US since Thomas Jefferson cited the inalienable rights of Man in the Declaration of Independence even as his chattel slaves worked his plantation at home. If Ralph Northam won’t resign, he needs to lead this discussion in Virginia. He can start at Union Hill.