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 KavanaughSupreme Court sides with religious schools in discrimination suits Romney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention Susan Collins signals she won't campaign against Biden 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 SpanbergerTrade groups make lobbying push to be included in small business loan program Virginia GOP to pick House nominee after candidate misses filing deadline Gun control group rolls out House endorsements MORE (D), Elaine LuriaElaine Goodman LuriaHouse panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate Republican Scott Taylor wins Virginia primary, to face Elaine Luria in rematch National Retail Federation hosts virtual 'store tours' for lawmakers amid coronavirus MORE (D), Jennifer WextonJennifer Lynn WextonOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated D.C.-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated Democrats rip Trump rollback of LGBTQ protections amid Pride Month MORE (D) and Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyBlack Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel Ousted watchdog says he told top State aides about Pompeo probe House committee chair requests immediate briefing on Secret Service's involvement in clearing protesters 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 McEachinSanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 House Democrats seek to codify environmental inequality mapping tool  House coronavirus bill aims to prevent utility shutoffs 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 FrankenPolitical world mourns loss of comedian Jerry Stiller Maher to Tara Reade on timing of sexual assault allegation: 'Why wait until Biden is our only hope?' Democrats begin to confront Biden allegations MORE (D-Minn.) and John ConyersJohn James ConyersLocal reparations initiatives can lead to national policy remedying racial injustice Former impeachment managers clash over surveillance bill VA could lead way for nation on lower drug pricing 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 John TrumpKimberly Guilfoyle reports being asymptomatic and 'feeling really pretty good' after COVID-19 diagnosis Biden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad 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.