Virginia scandals pit Democrats against themselves and their message

Democrats who took uncompromising stands against racism and sexual harassment and assault find themselves questioning just how far their idealism goes as Virginia’s top three officeholders struggle to weather political storms that threaten their careers.

After a racist photo showed up on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook from 1984, party leaders were quick to call for his resignation.

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Those calls only intensified after Northam denied he was in the photo, which showed a man in blackface next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood, while acknowledging that he had dressed in blackface at a different party.

But they have been markedly quieter about the scandals surrounding the two Democrats in line to succeed Northan, Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring.

If all three quit, Virginia’s next governor would be House Speaker Kirk Cox — a Republican.

Fairfax faces allegations of sexual assault by a Stanford professor, whose story in some ways mirrors and in some ways are even more severe than those leveled against Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughSarah Palin says she's praying about running for Senate against Murkowski Top House Democrats call on Biden administration to extend eviction moratorium On The Money: Biden asks Congress to extend eviction ban with days until expiration | Economic growth rose to 6.5 percent annual rate in second quarter MORE. A second woman on Friday evening publicly accused Fairfax of raping her in 2000.  

Democrats sided almost unanimously with Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Kavanaugh of assault, an accusation that nearly toppled his nomination.

Herring, days after calling for Northam’s resignation, admitted he too had worn blackface to a party in 1980.

Virginia Democrats had been slower to call on Fairfax or Herring to quit. But after the second allegation, most of Virginia's congressional delegation said it was time for Fairfax to go.
 
In a joint statement, Reps. Don Beyer (D), Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerLawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals Democrat unveils bill to allow only House members to serve as Speaker Moderate Democrats call for 9/11-style panel to probe COVID-19 origins MORE (D), Elaine LuriaElaine Goodman LuriaOvernight Defense: Watchdog blasts government's handling of Afghanistan conflict | Biden asks Pentagon to look into mandatory vaccines | Congress passes new Capitol security bill Overnight Defense: House Armed Services starts defense bill markups | Two Navy sailors die of COVID-19 | Pentagon reimposes mask mandate in some places Misled condemnation of the Lebanese Armed Forces will help Hezbollah MORE (D), Jennifer WextonJennifer Lynn WextonLate Capitol Police officer's family urges Congress to agree to Jan. 6 commission Administration withdraws Trump-era proposal to loosen protections for transgender homeless people Trump the X-factor in Virginia governor race MORE (D) and Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyHouse bill targets US passport backlog Democrats weigh next steps on Jan. 6 probe Tlaib, Democrats slam GOP calls for border oversight to fight opioid crisis MORE (D) said Fairfax showed "exceptionally poor judgement" in handling the allegations, and that he should resign.
 
"Given recent developments, I believe that it is best for the Commonwealth of Virginia if Justin Fairfax dealt with these accusations as a private citizen," Rep. Donald McEachinAston (Donale) Donald McEachinEnd the practice of hitting children in public schools Political disenfranchisement is fueling environmental injustice White House names members of environmental justice panel MORE wrote on Twitter. "He can no longer serve us as the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia."
 
The competing scandals pit two foundational cornerstones of the modern Democratic coalition — women who feel empowered by the Me Too movement and African Americans who are solidly aligned with the party of racial justice — against one another.

In the last year, Democrats have forced Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenCould Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? Al Franken to launch 15-stop comedy tour Democrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control MORE (D-Minn.) and John ConyersJohn James ConyersThe faith community can help pass a reparations bill California comes to terms with the costs and consequences of slavery Democrats debate timing and wisdom of reparations vote MORE (D-Mich.) to resign in the face of credible allegations of sexual harassment.

Yet those moves came without serious political costs: Franken was replaced by another Democrat, and Democrats even used his ouster to contrast with Republicans during a critical special election in Alabama won by Sen. Doug Jones (D). Conyers also was replaced by another Democrat.

“This is a test of pursuing our ideals versus how we wield power in our government,” said one Democratic strategist who did not want to be named wrestling with his side’s moral quandary.

The test between moral purity and realpolitik comes less than two years before the next presidential election, in which the Democratic nominee — who very well may be a woman, a person of color, or both — will stand in contrast to President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic On The Money: Biden, Pelosi struggle with end of eviction ban | Trump attorney says he will fight release of tax returns Lack of transatlantic cooperation on trade threatens global climate change goals MORE, who has bragged about grabbing women by their private parts, accused blacks of being lazy and Mexicans of being rapists.

As the chaotic week comes to a close, all three Democrats are in a defensive crouch, hoping to survive their individual tempests.

Northam has refused to quit, and he is signaling a slow return to business as usual. This week, with little fanfare, he signed a bill to give Amazon hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives to build a new facility in Northern Virginia, and he reached a budget deal with legislative Republicans to give Virginians a tax break.

Fairfax has adamantly denied the first accusation, detailed and shocking allegations leveled by Stanford Professor Vanessa Tyson.

Fairfax also denied the second allegation in a statement Friday evening, claiming it was part of “a vicious and coordinated smear campaign” and vowing, “I will not resign.”

Most Democrats nervously watching the situation said Fairfax was in the most jeopardy of being forced out, even before a  second accuser, Meredith Watson, came forward on Friday.

That puts Virginia Democrats in a politically tenuous position of forcing out Virginia's only black statewide officeholder — while two white officeholders accused of racist acts that played on African American stereotypes are clinging to their jobs.

Herring has come the closest to acknowledging his political risk, virtually handing his fate to the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which has yet to call on him to resign.

The Legislative Black Caucus also wields a significant amount of power over Fairfax and Northam. But caucus members have been reluctant to exercise that power.

Asked about the cascading scandals as he left a meeting in Herring’s office, in which Herring told African American legislators about his own blackface photo, caucus chairman Lamont Bagby (D) captured the sentiments many Democrats in Richmond — and around the country — felt this week.

“I imagine,” Bagby told The Washington Post, “we’re not praying enough.”

— Updated Feb. 9 at 9:22 a.m.