Why you should care
Leadership in the Old Dominion is reeling amid blackface scandals and a sexual assault allegation.
Virginians could use a new face to run the state. After all, two of their most prominent faces are white men who wore blackface, and a third stands accused of sexual assault.
The search began last week when current Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam apologized for a medical school yearbook photo of men in blackface and Ku Klux Klan garb — before changing his mind to say he wasn’t actually in the photo. But then he admitted he had donned blackface to mimic Michael Jackson in a dance contest, and came a wife’s intervention away from moonwalking to prove it. The spotlight turned to Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the state’s second-ever African-American politician elected statewide, who would replace Northam should the governor resign. But then college professor Vanessa Tyson publicly accused Fairfax of forcing her to give him oral sex at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. Next in line to the governorship is Attorney General Mark Herring, who had called on Northam to resign, and then admitted he too had worn brown makeup to mimic a Black rapper as a teenager at the University of Virginia.
It’s been a rough week for Virginia politicians … and the school yearbook industry. The Virginia Senate majority leader, Tommy Norment, became the first marred Republican after it came to light that he edited a Virginia Military Institute yearbook in 1968 filled with blackface and racist slurs. The hit list is sure to grow. “We’re not at the end of this story,” says Kyle Kondik, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “It’s a very fluid and strange situation.”
This fiasco is about more than partisan politics, but it’s a bad look for Democrats.
Northam, 59, served as an Army doctor and was a pediatric neurologist for decades before joining the Virginia Senate in 2008. Seen as a mild-mannered figure, he won the lieutenant governor post in 2013 and, after, outdueled a more liberal primary challenger and bested Republican Ed Gillespie to become governor in 2017. During the campaign, Northam accused Gillespie of race-baiting because of the Republican’s Donald Trump–style rhetoric playing up illegal-immigration fears. In office, Northam forced through a Medicaid expansion that Democrats had failed to do for years.
Fairfax, 39, has been considered a rising star in the party for years. In 2004, he was the personal aide (aka “body man”) for vice presidential nominee John Edwards, who would later see his career drown in sex scandal. An attorney, Fairfax served as a federal prosecutor and then worked in private practice before his successful lieutenant governor campaign in 2017. Herring, 57, joined the state Senate in 2006 and defeated Fairfax in a primary for attorney general in 2013 — then went on to win the general election by less than 1,000 votes. He made a mark by refusing to defend Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban in court (the Supreme Court agreed with him), then won re-election in 2017.
And now their skeletons have come tumbling out in succession. Let’s start by clearing up some of the excuses. While blackface was popular, derogatory entertainment for whites through the late 19th century, it was not socially acceptable behavior by the 1980s, as Northam has tried to claim. “No, it was definitely not common,” says Mia Moody-Ramirez, a Baylor University professor. The author of From Blackface to Black Twitter and Race, Gender and Image Repair Theory, she is both an expert in blackface and in how to recover from race-related faux pas. So her phone is ringing a lot these days. “The first step is always to show mortification,” Moody-Ramirez says. Her advice: Apologize sincerely and then repay the aggrieved party through public service or financial restitution. She adds that while case studies show youthful sins can be forgiven by voters, Northam has failed to show authentic remorse.
This fiasco is about more than partisan politics, but it’s a bad look for Democrats, who are lining up to paint Trump and Republicans as racist ahead of the 2020 campaign and swiftly pilloried Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh after he was accused of a decades-old sexual assault. Virginia has been trending blue in recent national elections, and Democrats seemed poised to seize control of the statehouse this year — a movement now in jeopardy, Kondik says.
More broadly, the scandals dig again at America’s open wounds of racism and sexism and raise a series of puzzling questions. When the past is not even past, as Southern author William Faulkner once wrote, and the present is just the past relitigated every day on the internet, where is the line between youthful indiscretion and damning character flaw? Should our past selves be judged by the times they were in, or the times we are in? And if Option A is a politician accused of racism and Option B is one accused of sexual assault, why the hell can’t we find an Option C?
Clearing house of all these naughty Virginians at once doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Then Democrats would be making Republican Kirk Cox governor. The Speaker of the House is next in line for succession and, as of now, faces no sordid allegations. And in the minds of partisans, the only thing less savory than bad men is bad politics. So instead, Virginia could very likely remain led by three lame-duck leaders, propped up by each other’s flaws — hobbled enough to lose if they dare another election, perhaps, but not enough to fade quietly back into their dusty yearbooks.
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