The state of Virginia delivered a decisive anti-Trump counterpunch in November 2017. Fifteen new Democrats, 11 of them women, won election to the House of Delegates, and three Democratic men—Governor Ralph Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring—aced their races decisively, powered at least partly by the “reverse coattails” of those female insurgents, and an unprecedented turnout by black and women voters behind them.
A little over a year since those new leaders went to Richmond, the promise of their transformative energy has been subverted into managing a crisis, given the unexpected transgressions of Northam, Fairfax, and Herring. For those who’ve just emerged from seclusion: In a few days last week we learned that Northam and Herring, white Virginians nearing 60, had dressed in blackface in early adulthood. At first, the next steps seemed clear: Northam should resign, and Fairfax, a rising African-American political star, would take his place. But almost immediately Fairfax found himself credibly accused of sexual assault by first one and now two women (he denies the accusations). Northam refused to resign, denying that he wore blackface in an offensive yearbook photo but admitting he darkened his skin for a Michael Jackson costume, and apologizing, promising to devote the rest of his term to “healing” Virginia’s racial divisions.
Suddenly the women who’d been elected to bring progressive change to Virginia—Democrats passed Medicaid expansion within two months of their swearing-in last year—are tasked with cleaning up the mess of the men at the head of their party.
“I am shocked and saddened about all of these allegations,” says Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, an African American elected in that 2017 wave. “I wanted this session to be all about women’s equality,” she says, having made Virginia passing the Equal Rights Amendment a top priority this year (it fell short thanks to GOP opposition). She has not personally called for Northam to resign, though as part of the Legislative Black Caucus she is technically on board with its resolution demanding that. Individually, she’s been forceful on the need for Fairfax to step down. “Blackface is not equivalent to sexual assault and rape. Rape is a crime.”
But the racial and gender complexities of Virginia Democrats’ troubles are not lost on Carroll Foy. If all three Democrats are forced to resign, that would throw control of the state to Republicans—GOP house leader Kirk Cox would be next in line. (According to Virginia law, Cox also gets to pick Herring’s replacement, if the attorney general alone resigns.) It’s clear that Virginia, the home of the Confederacy, has gradually evolved into a blue state thanks to demographic transformation—more voters of color, young people and northern transplants—as well as the support of a critical mass of older white Virginians like Northam and Herring. But some of those white Virginians grew up in an age when blackface and other trappings of white supremacy were rampant and too widely accepted, even if they supported racially progressive policies as they matured—and now their past is catching up with them.
Now Virginia Democrats are torn between backing a zero-tolerance policy on blackface and other past racial slurs, while resisting the notion that they should simply hand over the state to Republicans, who have not only pursued policies of voter suppression—passing a 2013 voter-ID law and fighting former Governor Terry McAuliffe’s felon reenfranchisement efforts—but have been punished at the polls for their backward racial views, going back to Senator George Allen’s upset loss in 2006 after he used a racial slur.
As the first black woman to attend the Virginia Military Institute, Carroll Foy knows very well about the racial insensitivity of white Virginians; her first roommate tried to hang a Confederate flag in their room, but later apologized. “She thanked me for changing the way she thought,” Carroll Foy recalls, calling that a sign that people can evolve on race. “In Virginia, we’re having more candid conversations about the people in power.”
The early “obvious” solution of Northam stepping down and Fairfax stepping up is nobody’s solution anymore, though Fairfax denies the charges, refuses to resign, and is demanding an investigation that would clear his name. State leaders hesitated after the first allegation against the lieutenant governor, not wanting to allow charges of assault to end the career of a promising black politician without some indication of their credibility. But then Dr. Vanessa Tyson, a Scripps College politics professor, publicly came forward to confirm the report that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex while she was working at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. Two days later, Meredith Watson, a fundraising consultant to nonprofits, announced that Fairfax had raped her when they were both students at Duke University in 2000. (On Monday night, two staffers in Fairfax’s state office as well as two in his political action committee resigned, an ominous development.)
The Legislative Black Caucus demanded Fairfax’s resignation after the second allegation. Some black women have expressed concern that while white feminists quickly declared solidarity with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and believed her sexual-assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year, in the case of Tyson and Watson, “you have some people taking a pause,” Carroll Foy told me, “and I didn’t anticipate that.”
Yet the racial politics of calling for Fairfax’s resignation aren’t simple. On Sunday, Democratic Delegate Patrick Hope, who is white, announced that he planned to introduce articles of impeachment; CNN even obtained a draft of the legislation. But after a Sunday night conference call with Democrats, on Monday morning he announced on Twitter Monday morning that he was backing off, citing “sincere and thoughtful feedback” from colleagues and concluding “additional conversations … need to take place before anything is filed.” Longtime Virginia political activist Carolyn Fiddler, who runs state political programs for Daily Kos, lives in Hope’s district and pronounced herself “intensely disappointed in my delegate—as a woman and as an activist.”
But the optics of a white delegate leading the charge against the state’s top black elected official would have been problematic (and should have been something Hope thoroughly worked out with his African-American colleagues before announcing his plans). Meanwhile, since Virginia’s two-month legislative session ends at the end of February, many Democrats are most concerned with passing legislation, and getting Northam to sign it, before time runs out. Fiddler is sympathetic. “Now that the new Democratic members have their sea legs, suddenly no one is talking policy, and that’s sad.”
At this point, Attorney General Mark Herring is most likely to survive, partly because he admitted his blackface offense up front—as a college sophomore, he dressed up as rapper Kurtis Blow for Halloween—and went straight to the Legislative Black Caucus with a reportedly tearful apology; the caucus has not demanded his resignation. But it’s also a factor that Republican House of Delegates leader Kirk Cox would appoint his successor, whereas if Fairfax steps down, Northam could appoint a Democrat (one frequent suggestion is Richmond-area state Senator Jennifer McClellan, who is black), who would then have to run for election in November. For some Virginia Democrats, including Fiddler, the ideal solution is for Fairfax to resign, for Northam to replace him with McClellan, and then for Northam to resign, letting McClellan succeed him and pick a lieutenant governor. But no one thinks that’s likely right now.
But if Northam and Herring survive, while Democrats step up pressure on Fairfax, that creates political perception problems—two white men skating after admitting they wore blackface, while a black man is still under widespread pressure to step down. Although the difference in severity between the charges against the men are obvious, it remains true that Northam and Herring confessed to being guilty as charged, while Fairfax still insists he’s innocent. It’s not a good look for anyone. Donald Trump, sensing opportunity, Tweeted on Sunday: “African Americans are very angry at the double standard on full display in Virginia!”
Not surprisingly, Trump isn’t the best guide to the feelings, let alone the interests, of African Americans. Northam won 87 percent of the black vote, and while many of the state’s black leaders have called for him to step down, polls are mixed when it comes to the wishes of the state’s black voters. A Washington Post poll says they want the white governor to stay, by a 58-38 margin, while a Daily Kos poll found they want him to go.
Still, Virginia Democrats are being forced to weigh the meaning of blackface in the pasts of these two white male Democrats—and presumably many others—and debate the appropriate consequences. While so far there’s no evidence of blackface or other obvious racial misconduct in GOP house leader Kirk Cox’s past, Republican Senate leader Tommy Norment presided over a college yearbook that contained not only racial and ethnic slurs but also, predictably, white people in blackface.
For Republicans to profit politically from Democrats’ higher standards on racial issues strikes many people as perverse. After all, the state’s GOP voters in 2018 chose anti-immigrant, pro-Confederate monument right-winger Corey Stewart as their Senate nominee—and he lost overwhelmingly to Senator Tim Kaine. Virginia voters have shown their dislike for the GOP’s racial politics in multiple elections over the last decade, going back to Allen’s 2006 loss, followed by Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012, Governor Terry McAuliffe’s victory in 2013, and increasing Democratic dominance ever since. Is putting the party of voter suppression and economic inequality in full control of state government really a just and fair solution to the Democrats’ internal crisis?
Some black leaders are beginning to doubt it. “We cannot allow political enemies of Virginia’s governor to call for his resignation over a photo when they continue themselves to vote for the policies of white supremacy,” Poor People’s campaign leader the Rev. William Barber wrote in an influential op-ed in The Washington Post. “If anyone wants to call for the governor’s resignation, they should also call for the resignation of anyone who has supported racist voter suppression or policies that have a disparate impact on communities of color.” That would force the departure of a whole lot of Republicans, in Virginia and elsewhere. Barber would like to see Northam push concrete policies of racial improvement, he told me, from dropping his support for an Old Dominion gas pipeline that would cut through the historically black Union Hill community, west of Richmond, which was founded by emancipated slaves, to pushing an initiative to make voter registration automatic once a Virginia resident turns 18. So far Northam has promised a “listening tour,” and suggested taking a “harder line” on the removal of Confederate monuments around the state.
So where a week ago it seemed unlikely that Northam could survive this crisis, as of Monday it looked possible. While Carroll Foy said she backed the black caucus call for Northam’s resignation, “now that he’s said he’s not going anywhere, and it’s not an impeachable offense, I can use it as a teachable moment.” Keeping Northam in office, as opposed to turning the state over to Republicans, is “better, given that the Republicans say no to unions, no to women’s equality. Even though [Northam and Herring] made this mistake, they are better than the other party” on racial-justice issues.
In an interview with The Nation, the Rev. Jesse Jackson acknowledged that he called for Northam’s resignation last week, because “he is less able to govern because of the blackface situation.” But while he denounced blackface as “part of the old scheme of humiliation,” he accused the media of caring more about Northam’s old photo than Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde Smith’s saying she’d be happy to sit in the front row of a lynching, or Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp taking “thousands of black voters off the books” to defeat Stacey Abrams and become governor.
“I have to think that when Northam supports Medicaid for all, voting[-rights] enforcement and took the higher side on the Charlottesville march, that should matter more,” Jackson said. He pointed to President Lyndon Johnson as someone who had supported Southern segregation in his youth, but became a champion of civil rights and poverty reduction as president. “We’ve seen what people who are fighting for redemption can do.”
The question in the days to come is whether Northam can convince black voters that he’s serious about redemption.