Opinion: How to handle the Virginia scandals

Governor Northam, Lieutenant Governor Fairfax, and Attorney General Herring. Photo courtesy of the Washington Examiner.

Over the course of the last month, the commonwealth of Virginia has been wracked by a series of scandals among their elected officials. As the situation currently stands, all three statewide officials – governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general – all members of the Democratic Party, are embroiled in scandal.

Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have both admitted to wearing blackface while Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax faces two serious sexaul assault and rape accusations. Despite enormous pressure from prominent Democrats statewide and nationally, the trio is resisting calls to step down.

The scandals erupted when it was reported that Northam’s medical school yearbook had a photo of a man in blackface and a man in a KKK robe. In a peculiar series of events, Northam admitted it was him in the photos and apologized, then retracted that statement – saying it was not him but that he had worn blackface in 1985 to impersonate Michael Jackson for a dance competition and he apologized anew.

Then the news broke that Fairfax had allegedly sexually assaulted Dr. Vanessa Tyson in 2004. Fairfax first attempted to paint the allegation in a partisan light – claiming that the timing of the accusation was due to the Northam scandal, but friends of the Tyson have backed up her account, saying she had told them about it previously.

Initially Democrats were cautious about the Fairfax allegation – calling for a thorough investigation but not pressuring Fairfax to resign. This dynamic changed when a second woman, Meredith Watson, stepped forward saying that Fairfax had raped her in college.

As more details emerge and since the second accuser has come forward, Democrats have begun calling for Fairfax’s resignation. A Democrat in the House of Delegates – Virginia’s lower legislative house – declared his intention to bring articles of impeachment against Fairfax if he does not resign.

That leaves the third and final statewide elected official, Attorney General Mark Herring. After the Northam imbroglio began, Herring told Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus that he had also worn blackface in college in 1980. He now faces pressure to resign as well – though at a much lower intensity than Northam or Fairfax.

If all three officials were to resign Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) would become governor.

Of the three officials, the allegations against Fairfax are obviously the most serious and severe. Given all the information known now, it is not definitive that Fairfax is guilty, but what is clear is that he faces serious, credible allegations that inhibit him from effectively discharging his duties. Through the mere fact of staying in office, he is damaging the public’s trust.

In a time where there was a stable line of succession and without the other scandals the question of whether Fairfax could remain in office while an extensive, vigorous and thorough investigation took place would warrant discussion. But these are not ordinary times, and to elevate Fairfax or keep him at his current position when the commonwealth is in such a precarious position would be a grave disservice to the people of Virginia on multiple levels.

Furthermore, Fairfax is a test for the Democratic Party. The argument Democrats made during the Kavanaugh hearings is that a person should not be elevated politically when they have serious sexual assault allegations against them. If the party does not exert maximum pressure to ensure that Fairfax resigns, it will smack of hypocrisy and double standards if, after the principled stand Democrats took against the elevation of Kavanaugh, they supported Fairfax.

As for Northam, the initial impulse to call for the Governor’s resignation is understandable – blackface is never acceptable. It was not acceptable in the 1980s and it is not acceptable now. Attempting to plead that it was a “different time” is asinine. Blackface has always been racist and while it is believable that Northam did not know the despicable history of blackface in the 1980s, that does not excuse him from the consequences of his actions.

Yet, a majority of African Americans in Virginia believe Governor Northam should stay in office. He has gained sensitivity to the issues facing the African American community through this experience – and if the people of his state that have the most cause to be offended wish to retain him then the right course of action is difficult to discern. Northam has vowed to devote the rest of his term in office to racial reconciliation.

Finally, the speaker should not be elevated to the governorship. In 2017, the people of Virginia gave a clear preference that they wished to be governed by Democrats, electing Northam, Fairfax and Herring and almost installing a Democrat majority in the House of Delegates – there was a tie in the district that would determine the majority and it was determined by a coin toss that gave the seat to the Republicans. To overturn the wishes of the public and install a Republican administration would be against the principles of democracy.

The case of President Nixon’s resignation is instructive on the issue. The Watergate scandal would have been exponentially worse if the Democratic House had blocked or held up the confirmation of Gerald Ford as vice president and Democratic speaker of the House Carl Albert had ascended to the presidency – overturning the will of the people of the country expressed in 1972 to be governed by Republicans.

What might be better is to explore the legality and feasibility of holding special elections for the positions of attorney general, lieutenant governor and governor in Virginia in the near future. If this approach was adopted, then the people of the Virginia themselves would be able to decide whether or not to displace the governor and the attorney general in the primaries or in the general election, keeping with the spirit of democracy.

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