Virginia Politicians Embroiled in Scandals



Governor Ralph Northam faces allegations of racism.

Since last month, the Virginia state government has been rocked by accusations of racist behavior by Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, and sexual assault allegations against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.

On February 1, Big League Politics, a far-right investigative website, reported that a photo from Governor Northam’s medical school yearbook page depicted a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes. On the same day, Mr. Northam apologized for the picture. However, the next day, he denied being one of the two men in the picture, but admitted he wore blackface to a Michael Jackson dance contest in the early 1980s. He did later admit that he was one of the men in the picture, but did not say which one.

Mr. Northam’s statements immediately sparked public outcry throughout the country and within his own government. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, former governors, and Rep. Bobby Scott, a senior member of Virginia’s House delegation, issued a joint statement, saying,  “[T]he events of the past 24 hours have inflicted immense pain and irrevocably broken the trust Virginians must have in their leaders. [Governor Northam] should step down and allow the Commonwealth to begin healing.”

Coalitions of black elected officials and civic leaders focused on how the scandal can prompt policy changes that would benefit black communities, including increased funding for black colleges and universities. Wes Bellamy, member of Virginia Black Politicos, said, “If [Governor Northam] doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of [history], then he needs to make sure the resources are spread in abundance for the people who got him elected and who have been carrying [the Democratic] party.”

Despite calls for his resignation from the public, Mr. Northam, now a year into his four-year term, announced he would remain in office, saying, “I accept responsibility for my past actions, and I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust. I am committed to continuing that fight through the remainder of my term and living up to the expectations you set for me when you elected me to serve.”

Kostia Howard ’20, head of Hotchkiss Democrats and Virginia resident, said, “[Mr. Northam] has been a steadfast supporter of civil rights, and everything he’s done has helped uplift the people that his acts hurt. It’s a strange contradiction, and I can see his frustration in being punished for something he did so long ago. Regardless, I do think that he should step down. We have to hold public officials to this standard across America.”

Lieutenant Governor Fairfax, who will succeed Governor Northam if he resigns, has faced multiple accusations of sexual assault. On February 3, Dr. Vanessa Tyson, a professor at Scripps College, released a statement alleging that Mr. Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004. Five days later, Meredith Watson alleged that Mr. Fairfax raped her in 2000 when the two were students at Duke University.

Fairfax has disputed both accusations and denounced what he called “a vicious and coordinated smear campaign,” calling for an impartial investigation and declaring that he will not resign from office. The Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates announced on February 22 that it would hold hearings to investigate the claims against Mr. Fairfax. However, some Democratic House members argued that the General Assembly is not an appropriate setting for an investigation. Lashrecse Aird, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, said, “The justice and the due process that we seek should be by a law enforcement entity, not by individuals who will be on the ballot in November.”

Attorney General Mark Herring has also been embroiled in controversy, acknowledging on February 6 that he appeared in blackface at a college party in 1980.

Many in the school community have reacted to the series of revelations. Mr. David Conti, instructor in classics, said, “Part of being a leader is inspiring confidence and having [the] trust of the people you lead. All the people in Virginia should have questions about their confidence in [Northam and Fairfax]. If these two have good ideas but had some serious flaws, then maybe the right decision is to find other people in Virginia who can lead in the same way without these flaws.”

Dr. Thomas Fisher, instructor in history, pinpointed the underlying cause behind the scandals, saying, “It’s in part a product of the party system that has promoted some people rather than others: white men have been promoted in ways that, say, African-American women haven’t been. [The scandals] have quite understandably become an example [of why] the Democratic party needs to take this criticism seriously, that it hasn’t done a good enough job of representing its constituents and representing the different members of its coalition.”

Kirk Cox, Republican speaker of the Virginia house, is next in line for governor should Mr. Northam, Mr. Fairfax, and Mr. Herring all resign.