Thursday, February 07, 2019
Saying that anything in the annals of American political history is “unique” or “unprecedented” is dangerous, for the simple fact that the past is filled with so many oddities from which we can draw parallels. That said, we’re struggling to come up with something equivalent to what we’ve seen in Virginia over the past week.
Let’s retrace the steps.
This story that has rocked the Democratic administration in Richmond does not really begin with the report from conservative news site Big League Politics that Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-VA) medical school yearbook page contained a picture of two people, one dressed in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan outfit. No, it really started with a speech by state Delegate Kathy Tran (D) in which she was advocating a bill dealing with late-term abortions that many Republicans argued was instead a defense of infanticide. Northam, on Wednesday, entered the fray on the bill, leading to a round of criticism from Republicans. The point here isn’t to litigate this abortion dispute: Rather, it’s just to acknowledge that it seems likely this was the match that lit the fire. Without the abortion controversy, it seems probable that none of this would be happening now.
Big League Politics told the Washington Post over the weekend that the abortion comments spurred the public emergence of the yearbook: “The source of the tip appears to have been a medical school classmate or classmates of Northam who acted as a direct result of the abortion controversy that erupted earlier in the week, according to two people at Big League Politics.”
As bigger outlets confirmed the authenticity of the photo, Northam released a statement Friday, and then a video message, taking ownership of, and apologizing for, the photo — though he never said whether he was the one in blackface or the individual in the Klan hood. Less than a day later, he reversed course and said he was not in the photo at all, that he had never seen it before, and that its placement on his yearbook page in 1984 had been a mistake (or a prank) of some sort. Yet Northam offered, without prompting, that in the same year, he had appeared in a form of blackface as he wore a Michael Jackson costume during a dancing competition. Asked by a reporter if he could still “moonwalk” like Jackson, Northam appeared ready to demonstrate the dance move until his wife, Pam, whispered that it would be inappropriate to do so.
Even before the press conference, in-state and out-of-state Democratic leaders vied to be among the first to call for Northam’s resignation. A half-dozen or more 2020 presidential hopefuls wasted no time on Twitter in urging Northam to give up his office. Following the press conference, Northam’s rapidly diminishing support further collapsed, as Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner (D-VA), the other top two Democratic officials in the state, called for his resignation. So did his patron and predecessor, ex-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, as well as former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s and Virginia’s first elected African-American governor. As best we can tell, there really is only one truly major Democrat who has held elected office recently who has not weighed in against Northam: former President Barack Obama, who campaigned for Northam in 2017. Northam must have hoped that the press conference would allow him to gain some measure of control over the story; instead, it was a universally-panned disaster. Northam has since avoided the public eye and has been huddling with advisers. Morning Consult, which continually monitors the approval ratings of major statewide officials, found “a 41-percentage-point drop in Northam’s net approval rating” over the weekend.
With many expecting Northam’s resignation, focus turned to the man who would replace him as governor, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D). For Democrats, particularly those running for president and not involved in Virginia politics, asking for Northam’s resignation was an easy decision. This was an opportunity to stand on principle about racism with the added benefit of being able to do so without costing Democrats any power.
After running a very competitive campaign for the Democratic attorney general nomination in 2013 — losing to Mark Herring (D), who is now in his second term as attorney general — Fairfax won the lieutenant governor’s office in 2017. Prior to this Virginia crisis, his last notable news-making event had been sitting out a tribute to Robert E. Lee in the Virginia Senate, the body over which the lieutenant governor otherwise presides. Fairfax, an African American, had his ancestor’s manumission documents in his pocket when he was sworn in as lieutenant governor in 2017. Given Virginia’s fraught racial history, Fairfax’s elevation to the governorship in the aftermath of Northam’s possible resignation because of the governor’s apparent involvement in racist cultural traditions would “go some way toward righting the historical wrong that has been exposed here,” as one longtime political observer told us over the weekend.
But as the weekend drew to a close, rumors began to fly that Fairfax had problems of his own. After many had gone to bed Sunday night, Big League Politics reported that Fairfax had been accused of sexual assault stemming from an incident 15 years ago. Fairfax released a statement around 3 a.m. Monday denying the allegations and noting that the Washington Post had explored it following his 2017 election but had decided not to publish it after “being presented with facts consistent with the Lt. Governor’s denial of the allegation, the absence of any evidence corroborating the allegation, and significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegation.” Following Fairfax’s statement, the story spilled into the mainstream press, and the Washington Post did its own story, confirming that it had investigated the allegation but decided not to publish it because, and this is our paraphrase, the accusation essentially amounted to a “he said, she said” situation that the Post could not otherwise verify. However, the Post did not say that it had found holes in the woman’s story; rather, the paper just couldn’t confirm it and opted not to publish based on that. Fairfax has hinted that the story is coming out for political reasons, but it’s also quite possible that his national prominence in the last few days simply caused the accuser to try to get her accusation into the public sphere. Nonetheless, Fairfax has made no secret of his belief that other political figures — including Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D), a Fairfax rival — had fanned the rumors. Northam and Stoney deny that, but questions about Fairfax have undeniably helped slow the rush to show Northam the door.
Big League Politics named the accuser, but larger news organizations had declined to until Tuesday afternoon, when NBC News, with her permission, identified her as Vanessa Tyson, a politics professor at Scripps College in California. Tyson is being represented by the same law firm as Christine Blasey Ford used as she made her sexual assault accusation against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh last fall.
So that about catches us up as of Tuesday morning. Some observations:
Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
See Other Political Commentary by Larry Sabato
See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik
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