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The Ralph Northam Scandal

One need not be an ardent political junkie to have heard at least something about the trilogy of political scandals that rocked the Commonwealth of Virginia over the last month.  At the highest level, Governor Ralph Northam has been embroiled in controversy over revelations about a racially insensitive picture in his medical school yearbook from 1984. It depicts the Governor wearing black-face with a friend dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.  When this photo emerged in early February, Northam quickly admitted to being the man in blackface and apologized by defending himself by referencing his years of public service. In a separate statement, he wrote, “I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor.”  

Later that week however, he claimed to Virginia Democratic Party leaders that after re-evaluation he was unsure it was in fact an authentic photograph of him.  Then, he delivered a press conference in which he denied that he was pictured in the photo, but admitted to wearing blackface in the past while impersonating Michael Jackson.  His flip-flop on this matter is deeply troubling, mainly because in the interim public figures began calling for his immediate resignation from the Governorship. Many who felt that he could continue as Governor changed their minds following his disastrous press-conference. Had Northam been more abject about his apology and not shirked responsibility, it is possible his constituents and fellow-  elected-officials may have come to different conclusions about this saga. Overall, the revelations about the controversial photo and his poor subsequent behavior have done irreparable political damage.

In the last month, Governor Northam has continued working on his legislative goals while staying silent and away from the public eye.  But just last week, he and his wife were yet again in the news for a race-related scandal. During a children’s tour of the Virginia Governor’s Mansion, formerly a slave plantation, First Lady Pam Northam handed cotton to three young African-Americans and asked them to imagine being enslaved in centuries past.  She has since apologized for her actions, claiming they were simply the three children closest to her. Also, there are some contradicting stories about what actually happened. Nonetheless, the Northams have a shown a tendency for racial-insensitivity, if not overt racism.

Additionally, in a recent slip of the tongue, Northam appeared to endorse infanticide of children birthed after failed abortions, saying, “the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”  A spokesman from his office later clarified and claimed his statement, “focused on the tragic and extremely rare case in which a woman with a nonviable pregnancy or severe fetal abnormalities went into labor.”  Despite this, much political damage had already been done.

Northam has repeatedly rejected calls for his resignation and stated he will serve out his remaining three years as governor.  However, we feel he must resign his office in the wake of these scandals. With three legislative sessions remaining in his term, it will be near impossible for him to complete his elected duties with the loss of political clout and the fallout resulting from these incidents.  He has also lost immense political support from his constituents throughout Virginia: in two days his approval rating dropped 41 points. He has lost the public’s trust both because of his past actions and his missteps in addressing them. Additionally, he no longer benefits from support from the Virginia legislature that he enjoyed during his first year in office.  

While the Governor must resign, this would create additional complications, as it would mean Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax would assume the role.  Fairfax has been dogged by his own scandal over the last month, as two credible witnesses have come forward and stated that he sexually assaulted them.  One woman, Vanessa Tyson came forward and said that the Lt. Governor assaulted her sexually during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. The second, Meredith Watson, accused Fairfax of assaulting her in 2000 when they were classmates at Duke.  The accused has denied both allegations, claiming his sexual encounters with both Tyson and Watson were consensual and that they are part of a larger smear-campaign against him as he is potentially about to ascend to the Governorship. In the last month, there has been much talk in the Virginia House of the Delegates about an impeachment resolution.  That body’s latest resolution states, “Whereas the House of Delegates believes all allegations of sexual assault must be taken with the utmost seriousness; and whereas the House of Delegates believes the allegations made by Dr. Vanessa Tyson and Ms. Meredith Watson to be credible in nature, while also respecting the principles of due process; now, therefore, be it resolved by the House of Delegates that proceedings for the impeachment of Lieutenant Governor Justin E. Fairfax shall be initiated.”  The FBI is currently investigating the legitimacy of both womens’ claims, and it would be deeply problematic for Fairfax to become the Commonwealth’s governor.

After Fairfax, the next person in the line of succession to the Governorship is Virginia Attorney General, Mark Herring.  Herring, who has been in office since 2014, has had difficulties of his own this month, which began when he admitted to wearing blackface at a college party during the 1980s on February 6th.  He claimed that he and a friend dressed up as then-popular rapper Kurtis Blow. In a statement, he said, “That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others.”  But, he also added, “This conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since.” While his past actions regarding blackface are indefensible, it appears Herring is the person best suited to assume the governorship. Firstly, he came forward about his past actions as a matter of principle rather than self-defense after the information was published by media outlets, as was the case with Northam.  While Herring may have erred some four decades ago, he has shown good judgment during his time as Attorney General, not just with regard to facing prior mistakes. In 2014, he worked to overturn the state’s ban on gay marriage and began issuing gay marriage licenses, an entire year before the Supreme Court made a similar decision. Also, he has previously stated he intends to run for the governorship in the next election in 2021.  As the Commonwealth of Virginia faces a constitutional crisis, it appears that Herring is the best option should the state’s legislature choose to pursue action against either Governor Northam, Lt. Governor Fairfax, or both.

While the events of the last month and the scandals surrounding its top three elected officials are bad for Virginia, they are equally bad for the Democratic Party nationwide.  In 2016 when President Donald Trump won by shockingly large electoral college margins, the Democrats scored big wins in Virginia. Hillary Clinton won the state and the majority of its statewide offices went to Democrats.  Virginia appeared to be a good model for the Democratic party to follow in its attempts at nationwide revival, but now that is certainly not the case. Additionally, these events are forcing both Democrats and Republicans alike to come to terms with the painful racial past in a state like Virginia, and in states around the country.  At present, it is unclear what Virginia’s future holds, but we sincerely hope the shocking scenario of the last month will be cause for pause, both for elected officials and private-citizens with regard to how we address issues of race both past and current.

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