With Virginia’s top three elected officials engulfed in scandal, fellow Democrats were rendered practically speechless, uncertain of how to thread their way through the racial and other allegations of misdeeds and the tangled political implications.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s career was already teetering over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook when the crisis spiraled out of control. First, the state’s attorney general acknowledged Wednesday that he, too, wore blackface once, when he was a college student. And then the lieutenant governor was publicly accused of misdeeds from 15 years ago.
Everyone in Richmond, it seemed, was waiting Thursday for Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus to respond. The caucus has been calling for Northam’s resignation over the past week but was silent about the latest developments.
“We’ve got a lot to digest,” the group’s chairman, Del. Lamont Bagby, said Wednesday.
The crisis threatens to bring down all three of the politicians, all of them Democrats. If Northam resigns, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax stands to become Virginia’s second black governor. Mark Herring, Attorney General of Virginia, is next in the line of succession, followed by House Speaker Kirk Cox, a conservative Republican.
Herring, who had been urging Northam to step down and was planning to run for governor in 2021, issued a statement acknowledging he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.
He apologized for his “callous” behavior and said that the days ahead “will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve.” The 57-year-old Herring came forward after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol. But he made no mention of any photo.
At the Capitol, lawmakers were dumbstruck over the day’s fast-moving developments, with Democratic Sen. Barbara Favola saying, “I have to take a breath and think about this.” GOP House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said it would be “reckless” to comment. “There’s just too much flying around,” he said.
Black lawmakers’ response could set the tone for whether fellow Democrats demand the resignation of the lieutenant governor and the attorney general.
Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas said several people were crying, including men, as Herring apologized to black lawmakers Wednesday morning before issuing his public statement. “He said he was very sorry,” Lucas said.
Cox issued a statement calling the allegations against Fairfax “extremely serious” and said they need a “full airing of facts.” Cox also urged Herring to “adhere to the standard he has set for others,” a nod to Herring’s previous call that Northam resign.
Democrats have expressed fear that the uproar over the governor could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated Virginia legislature this year after making big gains in 2017.
At the same time, the Democrats nationally have taken a hard line against misconduct in their ranks because women and minorities are a vital part of their base and they want to be able to criticize President Donald Trump’s behavior without looking hypocritical.
Trump accused Democrats on Thursday of political bias, tweeting: “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken.”
Northam has come under pressure from nearly the entire Democratic establishment to resign after the discovery of a photo on his yearbook profile page of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, then denied it, but acknowledged putting shoe polish on his face for a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.
Herring came down hard on Northam when the yearbook photo surfaced, condemning it as “indefensible,” and “profoundly offensive.” He said it was no longer possible for Northam to lead the state.