Where things stand
The three highest-ranked officials in Virginia state government — all Democrats — are now under intense scrutiny after the revelation over the last several days of separate scandals. Though state and national party officials have called on one or more of them to resign, it’s not at all certain that any of them will step down.
Gov. Ralph Northam
While much of the focus on Gov. Ralph Northam centers around a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page and his own admission he had darkened his skin to dress up like Michael Jackson decades ago, Northam originally attracted attention with controversial comments describing a late-term abortion procedure. He made the remarks during an interview after a new bill was proposed in the Virginia legislature to loosen restrictions on abortions during the third trimester of pregnancy and allow abortions during the second trimester to take place outside hospitals.
But that was overtaken by the revelation of a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page that surfaced earlier this month. Northam’s page in the 1984 East Virginia Medical School yearbook contains a photograph of two people — one wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam initially said he was pictured in the photo, but later said he wasn’t. In an exclusive interview with “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King, Northam explained he initially “overreacted” for apologizing for appearing in the photograph of the two men.
The Democrat did, however, admit to wearing dark face makeup in a single occasion in 1984 when he dressed up as pop singer Michael Jackson.
Since the photo’s revelation, numerous Virginia Democrats have called for Northam to leave office, questioning his ability to lead. Despite the scandal, Northam said he’s “not going anywhere” and instead views the controversy as a “unique opportunity” to “make some impactful changes.”
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax
The lieutenant governor faces his own controversy after two women came forward and accused him of sexual assault. Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor of political science at Scripps College in Claremont, California, alleged Fairfax sexually assaulted her at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. In a statement, Tyson described how the alleged assault took place, claiming Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him.
Soon after this revelation, a second woman, Meredith Watson, came forward to accuse Fairfax of raping her while they were students at Duke in 2000.
Fairfax denies both allegations. He said he heard from Tyson after their encounter and he knew Watson after their encounter, and he said neither ever “said or otherwise indicated that our interaction was not consensual or caused her any discomfort.”
Amid a chorus of calls from Democrats to step down, including one Virginia delegate who threatened to file articles of impeachment, Fairfax says he wants a full investigation, and he intends to serve the remainder of his term.
What about an investigation?
While Fairfax has demanded an investigation led by the Justice Department, calling on “all appropriate and impartial investigatory authorities, including the FBI, to investigate fully and thoroughly the allegations against me,” it’s unclear just what jurisdiction the Justice Department would have. The Boston Police Department and the Massachusetts State Attorney told CBS News they had not received a complaint stemming from Tyson’s allegation from 2004.
The FBI told CBS News it has no comment on the request made by Fairfax for the bureau investigate the allegations against him.
Northam also appeared to support an investigation, but he also told “CBS This Morning” host Gayle King that if the accusations against Fairfax are true, “I don’t think he’s going to have any other option but to resign.”
“I can only imagine that it must take tremendous courage for women to step forward and and talk about these things that are just- are just so hurtful. And these accusations are very, very serious. They need to be taken seriously. As you know, Governor Fairfax has called for an investigation. I really think where we are now, we need to get to the truth,” Northam said Sunday.
Attorney General Mark Herring
Also last week, Mark Herring, the state’s attorney general, announced he, too,on one occasion. Herring — who said Northam’s display of blackface was disqualifying — admitted he darkened his face as a 19-year-old college student in 1980. He claimed it was for a party where he and his friends dressed like rappers they listened to at the time.
“I have a glaring example from my past that I have thought about with deep regret in the many years since, and certainly each time I took a step forward in public service, realizing that my goals and this memory could someday collide and cause pain for people I care about,” Herring said in a statement.
Herring stepped down as co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, but suggested he could try to remain in office, saying in a statement: “In the days ahead, honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general, but no matter where we go from here, I will say that from the bottom of my heart, I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation.”
His insistence that Northam step down over wearing blackface has raised the question of why the same standard wouldn’t apply to him. Still, calls for Herring’s resignation haven’t been as widespread as they have been for Northam and Fairfax, both of whom have seen state and national Democrats urging them to resign. If all three Democrats were to resign, the next leader in line to be governor after Herring is Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox, a Republican. Some Democrats felt that Herring’s handling of his controversy set him apart from Northam and Fairfax.
“His situation is different, and I judge each situation on its merits,” Democratic Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton told“The attorney general came forward proactively, is very regretful and contrite. He reached out to all the African-American leaders and other leaders, very heartfelt anguish about what he had done. But he’s got a lot of work to do to regain the trust of the people of Virginia.”
History of blackface
While some politicians have admitted to wearing blackface as a failed attempt at comedy or dress-up, the use of blackface has a long, complex and hurtful history ingrained in American culture. The racist show-business practice has emerged again recently as more public figures have stepped forward, apologizing for their use of blackface.
In the 19th century, white performers would wear dark face makeup for vaudeville and minstrel shows and movies to portray insulting racial stereotypes of black people. Actors would draw exaggerated white mouths contrasted against stark black makeup for comedic or theatrical effect. While minstrel shows eventually died out by the 1900s, the use of blackface prevailed, even in big Hollywood productions with such stars like Judy Garland, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire using black face makeup.
In today’s culture, blackface has made an unwelcome comeback as white public figures, including politicians, musicians and actors and have admitted to darkening their faces for costume purposes, often ignoring the harmful connotations their makeup brings up.
According to a new Pew Research Center poll, about a third of Americans say blackface for a Halloween costume is “sometimes acceptable.” White adults are about twice as likely as black adults to say the use of blackface for a costume is acceptable — 39 percent vs. 19 percent.
What does this all mean for the Democratic Party?
For Democrats — particularly those with an eye on 2020 — the timing couldn’t be worse. And since Democrats have tried to distinguish themselves from Republicans and claim the moral high ground on the issues of race and gender, they’re facing that standard in handling the situation in Virginia.
At the state level, the Republican Party of Virginia was already weakened, with demographic and other changes contributing to repeated losses at the statewide level, and failed Senate candidate Corey Stewart prompting outrage with his nationalist comments. But now, the state’s Democratic Party faces its own high-visibility crisis with its top three state-level leaders all facing their own scandals.