Yes, Virginia, This is Chaos
A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik
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:
- It remains unclear as to whether Northam will resign. Ultimately, the only one who can make that decision is Northam, and he seems conflicted about it. His reputation may be impossible to salvage at this point, but impeachment may not be a plausible solution since his offense occurred long before he assumed the governorship. The Virginia Constitution’s standards for impeachment also are not really compatible with Northam’s situation. Perhaps Northam’s greatest threat in this scandal may have already come and gone: the Saturday press conference followed by the loss of support from Kaine, Warner, and other top Virginia Democrats. Will Obama eventually weigh in? He’s really the only major Democrat whose voice might matter here. Northam has never struck us as a person who was interested in an office higher than the one he holds now — unlike, say, former Govs. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is mulling a bid for president, and Bob McDonnell (R), who we very easily could have imagined running for Senate or even president had his career not been derailed by a corruption scandal (his conviction was ultimately thrown out, but his reputation has never recovered). But because Northam’s days as a candidate were, and now certainly are, over, he doesn’t need to satisfy his party anymore. However, it is vital to note that this scandal is not cost-free for Northam and may become worse. Already, the College of William and Mary has withdrawn an invitation to Northam, and there is little question that every public appearance will be controversial and possibly accompanied by protests. Some legislators and other officials have said privately that they will not meet with Northam or appear with him in public. How can he represent Virginia across the country and world, or in wooing corporations considering a relocation to Virginia, with that awful photograph appearing in the published accounts of every trip? No one enjoys pariah status, especially if it is permanent.
- During his press conference, Northam said a classmate told him that other pictures in the yearbook had appeared on the wrong pages and that in the coming days he and his team would gather evidence and “all of you will be reassured to see that I am not in that photograph.” But since the press conference the governor has not provided any additional information or pointed out any other problems in the yearbook. The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin reported Tuesday morning that Northam planned to hire a private eye as part of his investigation into the yearbook. That’s “not the sort of thing somebody does if they are about to resign,” Martin said. WHSV, the ABC affiliate in Harrisonburg, VA, interviewed a page designer who worked on the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook at the time who said, “To my knowledge nobody complained that their picture ended up on a different page.” Of course, Northam has claimed that he never bought a copy of the yearbook, never saw the page, and never had any classmates or others mention the photo to him. Sadly, there are other pictures of Northam’s classmates in blackface in the very same yearbook, suggesting that the practice was either widely accepted or certainly not condemned at EVMS (which has now launched its own investigation and undoubtedly will have to make amends to African Americans — and just about everybody else — for these sickening racist images).
- There remains some legal uncertainty about what precisely would happen in the event of Northam’s resignation. Fairfax would become governor, and he would get to appoint a replacement. However, it’s unclear whether that person would be on the ballot with opponent(s) in a special election this fall to fill the two remaining years in the term, based on a 1971 precedent (the last time a vacancy in the lieutenant governorship was filled). There is already a scheduled election in November for all 140 seats in the House of Delegates and state Senate, along with many local officials, so it would be easy to add the lieutenant governor post to the ballot. However, other legal authorities believe the new appointed lieutenant governor could just serve through 2021 without need of a special election. The General Assembly or the Virginia Supreme Court may have to decide. Fairfax, meanwhile, could run for his own full term in 2021: Virginia governors are barred from seeking reelection — it’s the only state that does not allow a governor to be elected to two consecutive terms. But because Fairfax was not actually elected to be governor, he could run for (re)election if he became governor. He would be the first Virginia governor to be able to run for reelection as an incumbent in the post-Civil War era.
- Even before Tyson’s allegations against Fairfax emerged publicly, the fact that a yearbook was at the center of Northam’s troubles already reminded us a bit of the battle over Kavanaugh. But now there are much clearer parallels between the Kavanaugh and Fairfax situations because of allegations of sexual assault. All we can say is that it may be hard for partisans to take consistent positions on both of these accusations. As National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar wrote, “at a time when leading Democrats have called on the public to believe all women alleging sexual misconduct, their treatment of Fairfax is going to come under scrutiny and make things awkward.” At the same time, Republicans almost reflexively believed Kavanaugh and disparaged the women accusing him of sexual assault. The hypocrisy would be obvious if Republicans suddenly turned into advocates for the alleged victim without substantial proof that has not been presented (as of yet at least) that Fairfax was guilty.
- In the event that both Northam and Fairfax resign, Attorney General Mark Herring (D) would become governor. In the immediate aftermath of the Northam bombshell and Fairfax’s seemingly likely ascension to the governorship, we thought back to Herring’s decision to defer to Northam in advance of the 2017 election (as it was, Northam did not face an unopposed path to the nomination as former Rep. Tom Perriello made a late decision to challenge him, but lost in a landslide). With Fairfax potentially becoming governor, Herring — who previously announced his intention to seek the governorship in 2021 — could have been effectively blocked. Yet as of now, Herring is only one of the three elected Democratic statewide officeholders without a cloud over his head.
- Looming over all of this is the upcoming state legislative elections in Virginia this November. Republicans are hanging on to very slim majorities in the state House of Delegates (51-49) and state Senate (21-19). Democrats made a net 15-seat gain in the House of Delegates in November 2017 as Northam, Fairfax, and Herring won statewide. Democrats seemed like favorites to win both chambers — we’ll analyze these races later in the year — particularly because a new state House of Delegates map imposed by judicial order will improve Democratic odds in that chamber. Some Virginia Democratic operatives, even before the current mess, were concerned that the white hot intensity that fueled Democrats in 2017 and 2018 might cool in 2019, particularly without any statewide elections on the ballot. Lower turnout might help Republicans, whose voter base in Virginia (and elsewhere) can be more reliable in off-year elections. Still, the growing nationalization of American politics could help the Democrats by pushing them to maximize turnout in Virginia by focusing again on the unpopular President Trump. But one could imagine the opposite happening, particularly if Northam hangs around and depresses Democrats, or the Fairfax allegations continue to churn. Perhaps a statewide election for lieutenant governor, if it happens, will increase turnout in Democrats’ favor. Or if Northam stays, could we see Democratic state legislative candidates running on impeaching their own party’s governor? It’s not impossible, and it would be just the latest crazy development in a state rocked by them over the last week.
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.
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