Virginia Democrats Struggle with Interlocking Crises

Feb 7, 2019

Virginia Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax, left, prepares to open the Senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. A California woman has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago.
Credit (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Virginia's Democrats struggled to find their way out of three interlocking political crises Thursday that could bring down the party's top elected officials and put a Republican in the governor's chair.

With Gov. Ralph Northam's career in peril over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, the state attorney general acknowledged on Wednesday that he, too, put on blackface once, when he was in college, and a woman publicly accused the lieutenant governor of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago.

While nearly the entire Democratic establishment rose up against Northam over the past week to demand he resign, party members largely withheld judgment on the two latest developments, which threaten to cause a political chain reaction that could make a GOP legislative leader the governor.

President Donald Trump accused the Democrats of a political double standard, tweeting: "If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken."

Some clarity on the way forward could come from Virginia's Legislative Black Caucus, which was preparing a statement on the crisis. The caucus has been calling for Northam's resignation but was silent about Attorney General Mark Herring and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would become Virginia's second black governor if Northam stepped down.

The caucus chairman, Del. Lamont Bagby, said the group needs time to sort out the series of revelations. Many Democrats are likely to follow the group's cues.

Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, had initially predicted Northam would be unable to hang on to office for more than a week. Now, with all three top Democrats in trouble, the equation has changed, he said.

He said it is possible all three could survive just out of political necessity because conservative Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would be next in line for governor if they all resigned.

The Democrats' "moral clarity" last week has given way to the realization they could "lose power completely at the executive level," Kidd said. He likened the situation to three sinking boats "that suddenly lash themselves together and find they can float."

Meanwhile, the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a fiery speech at historically black Virginia Union University that the matter should be dealt with swiftly. He said Northam and Herring must step down over their blackface admissions, and the allegations against Fairfax should be investigated thoroughly.

The civil rights leader said he came to Richmond to deliver a message to the governor: "I'm not going to be your minstrel!"

Members of the crowd of 300 students, faculty, clergy and political leaders shouted in agreement and jumped to their feet several times during Sharpton's speech.

It was also revealed Thursday that a top Virginia Republican, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, was managing editor of a 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook that included racial slurs and blackface. In a statement, Norment condemned blackface but also noted that six other people worked on the yearbook.

The governor is under fire over the discovery of a photo on his yearbook profile page of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, then denied it, but acknowledged putting shoe polish on his face for a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.

On Wednesday, Herring, who had been urging Northam to step down, admitted wearing blackface to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old at the University of Virginia in 1980. He apologized for his "callous" behavior.

Then Vanessa Tyson, a 42-year-old college professor from California, put out a detailed statement alleging Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Fairfax said the encounter was consensual, and he dismissed the allegations as a strategically timed political smear.

Democrats have expressed fear the crises could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated Virginia legislature this year after big gains in 2017.

At the same time, the Democrats nationally have taken a hard line against misconduct in their ranks because women and minorities are a vital part of their base and they want to criticize Trump's behavior without looking hypocritical.