Virginia Politics Is a Dumpster Fire Right Now

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax stands in the middle of a scrum of reporters with cameras and mics outside the Virginia capital building.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax speaks to reporters, about the sexual assault allegation against him, in Richmond on Monday.

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The mess for Democrats in Virginia is getting messier, fast. Currently Virginia’s governor and the next two men in line to replace him are each facing their own scandals and varying levels of pressure to resign. It’s not clear how this mess will shake out or who will be left standing. Here’s a rundown of what has happened and what we know so far:

Gov. Ralph Northam was the first figure to be disgraced, when on Friday the right-wing blog Big League Politics published a photo of two men—one in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe—on what appeared to be Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page. Northam came forward and apologized, confirming he had “appeared” in a “clearly racist and offensive” costume, without specifying which of the two men he was.

Northam quickly changed his story one day later. As a notable number of Democrats both in Virginia and nationally joined Republicans in calling for his resignation, Northam walked back his comments while simultaneously incriminating himself. In a bizarre press conference Saturday, he said that he was not actually one of the two men in the photo. (It’s technically possible, but still unlikely, the photo was placed on his page by mistake and without his knowledge.) But he admitted that he had used shoe polish that same year to darken his face when he dressed up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest. A reporter asked him if he could still moonwalk, and Northam’s wife, Pamela, had to step in to stop him from demonstrating the dance move for the gathered press.

The governor has repeatedly said he does not plan to resign. His staff helped arrange a letter from nine med school classmates to say they believed Northam was not in the racist photo and that he never “engaged in, promoted, tolerated, or condoned racism.” An old Eastern Virginia Medical School roommate of Northam’s said he was at the party in question and that Northam went dressed as a lawyer and not in a racist costume, but that one memory from 35 years ago did little to persuade anyone of Northam’s innocence. It appears Northam can’t easily be impeached or otherwise forced out of office, and he still seems determined to stay.

If Northam’s resignation initially seemed an easy way to end Virginia’s drama, that quickly evaporated. The man who would replace him, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, has been facing his own scandal this week. It, too, began with a post from Big League Politics, which on Sunday published a screenshot of a private social media post by a woman who accused a state-level politician of sexually assaulting her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, all but naming Fairfax. In a statement Monday, Fairfax confirmed he was the target of the allegation but denied the allegation itself.

According to Fairfax, the Washington Post had essentially cleared his name when the paper looked into the allegation more than a year ago and found “significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegation.” The Post pushed back against that characterization Monday and explained that it sat on the story only because reporters had not found corroborating evidence of the woman’s account or similar complaints against Fairfax from anyone else.

In the Post’s telling, Fairfax and the woman described the same start to the encounter: a visit to Fairfax’s hotel room that led to consensual kissing. It’s after that, the woman alleges, that Fairfax guided her to bed and physically forced her to perform oral sex on him. Fairfax maintains the entire encounter was consensual and said that the woman later told him she wanted him to meet her mother but that ultimately the two never saw each other again.

Also on Monday, Fairfax made the bold suggestion that Northam’s supporters were behind the allegation in an effort to stop the governor from being pressured out of office. Later that day, Fairfax retracted that charge and said he had “no indication in that regard.”

Then, the accuser came forward. Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor of politics at Scripps College in California, hired Katz, Marshall & Banks—the law firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford after she accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. A colleague of hers told the San Jose Mercury News on Tuesday that she remembered Tyson telling her and a couple other colleagues about the alleged assault last fall.

Fairfax issued a more sensitively worded statement Wednesday, but it was immediately followed by the shocking news, via NBC News, that he had said of Tyson during a Monday night meeting, “Fuck that bitch.” (Fairfax’s chief of staff denied the report.)

Then Tyson issued a formal statement Wednesday afternoon describing the 2004 encounter in more detail and saying that it had left her grappling with “grief, shame, and anger.” She described herself as “crying and gagging” as he forced her into the sex act, and she emphasized that she had never given any form of consent. Tyson said she came forward the first time in 2017, after being inspired by the #MeToo movement, and the second time after learning of the possibility that he could become governor. And she alleged that Fairfax had been waging a “smear campaign” by telling reporters to watch a video from 2007 in which she talked about being the victim of incest and molestation. “Mr. Fairfax has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation,” she said.

If Virginians were hoping for a saving grace in the next elected leader down the ladder, they were probably disappointed Wednesday morning to learn that state Attorney General Mark Herring, who is second in line for the governorship, admitted that he also dressed in blackface at a party in the 1980s. Herring said that when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia in 1980, he and his friends dressed up as rappers and performed a song. “[B]ecause of our ignorance and glib attitudes—and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others—we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”

Herring, it’s worth noting, had originally called on Northam to resign in reaction to the first blackface scandal.

In addition to the disgrace and outrage the scandals have ignited, the political crisis potentially imperils the Democratic Party’s control of the state’s executive branch. After Herring, the next person in line is the speaker of the House of Delegates, a Republican. (Another fateful twist to the saga: The speakership is held by a Republican only because House control was determined by literally drawing a name from a bowl.) Virginia Democrats would probably not allow a Republican to take over, so it seems possible, as Ben Mathis-Lilley noted, that Democrats would orchestrate some unusual moves—such as forcing Fairfax to resign, then having Northam appoint a replacement for Fairfax, who would then take over for Northam upon his own resignation.

Alternatively, it’s possible that Northam’s colleagues’ problems will make him more comfortable staying put: As one Slate staffer put it, “It probably helps his prospects if it’s just a garbage fire all the way down.”

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