Virginia’s political crisis continued to deepen on Thursday over the race and sexual misconduct scandals engulfing the state’s three leading Democrats.
Things could hardly have gone worse for Virginia in recent days, after Ralph Northam, the state’s Democratic governor, belatedly confessed to having worn blackface.
A racist photo from Northam’s medical school yearbook page was made public on Friday by a conservative media website, showing a man in blackface standing beside a masked individual dressed in the hooded robe of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan. In Northam’s response to the picture, he admitted he had painted his face with shoe polish during an ill-conceived Michael Jackson impersonation.
But things did get worse for the state, when the man in line to succeed Northam was accused of sexual assault, and the man third in line to succeed him admitted that he, too, had worn blackface as a teenager.
Northam has continued to cling to power, hunkered down in the governor’s mansion in Richmond, despite facing calls to resign from almost the entire Democratic party in Virginia, and a number of prominent black public figures.
“The governor really faces a difficult choice. The choice initially was resigning with some modicum of dignity and resigning in full disgrace. At this point he is moving toward the latter option,” said Cornell Brooks, a Virginia-based professor at the Harvard Kennedy School who has also served as the president of the NAACP.
“Having offered up a series of evolving apologies and explanations for what he did 35 years ago he has undermined the credibility of the office of governor and his own ability as a chief exec in Virginia to govern.”
The state’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, was seen as a rising star in the Democratic party, and would have been expected to take Northam’s place if he resigned. Instead, the day after Northam’s blackface revelation, a female academic, Vanessa Tyson, publicly accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004.
Tyson, a 42-year-old political scientist who is on a fellowship at Stanford University and specializes in the political discourse of sexual assault, said, “I have no political motive. I am a proud Democrat.”
Fairfax has denied the accusations, saying that the encounter was consensual and that he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear, but he has also faced calls to resign.
The political crisis in Virginia is a test for the Democratic party
That would leave the attorney general, Mark Herring, a prominent Democrat who had called for Northam’s resignation, and was widely expected to run for governor himself in 2021.
Until Wednesday, that is, when Herring said he had worn “brown makeup” at a party in 1980 to impersonate the rapper Kurtis Blow. The debacle could play into the hands of Republicans in the state. The fourth in line to succeed Northam is the house speaker, Kirk Cox, a Republican who only assumed that position through an archaic procedure that involved drawing names out of a bowl.
When asked by reporters at the capitol in Richmond whether anything in his past might disqualify him from taking over the governor’s office, Cox said: “I have never appeared in blackface. As you know, I was a schoolteacher, and that’s abhorrent.”
On Thursday, Donald Trump accused Democrats of “killing the Great State of Virginia” and suggested the crisis could improve his Republican party’s chances in the state in the 2020 election.
However, the widening scandal has now also touched on the Republican party. On Thursday the Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported that Republican state senate majority leader Tommy Norment had edited a college yearbook that contained racist insults and imagery, including blackface.
The paper reported that Norment was managing editor of the Virginia Military Institute publication, called The Bomb. It said the 1968 edition included several blackface photographs as well as racial slurs targeting African Americans, Jews and Asians.
The series of stories has served as a painful reminder of Virginia’s past. Point Comfort, in the east of the state, was where America’s first African slaves arrived, in 1619. The state has spent years planning a series of events and exhibitions to commemorate the 400th anniversary, with a focus on race and the African American experience in Virginia.
“For me the scariest part is, and this has been said in the black community for decades, what happened this past week was things that we know exist came to the surface,” said Francesca Leigh-Davis, who co-hosts the RVA Dirt local politics radio show in Richmond.
In their statements addressing the blackface scandals both Northam and Fairfax have sought to draw attention to their age – Northam was 25 years old when he used shoe polish, and Herring was 19 when he used the “dark makeup”. But Leigh-Davis said both were adults, and pointed to a double standard between the treatment of young white men and young black men, or children.
“We have black kids who make true mistakes like going to a playground with a toy gun, and they lose their life,” she said, pointing to Tamir Rice, a black boy who was 12 years old when he was shot by police in Ohio in 2014.
“There is no opportunity for them to ask for forgiveness.”