Virginia is better than this. As truly embarrassing as the blackface soap-opera now playing in Richmond may be, the commonwealth can avoid the damaging missteps of the past year, like the U.S. Senate’s Kavanaugh hearings, and come to a reasonable resolution. Virginia should show America a path to reconciliation and the right way to address the thorny issues of race and gender.
Virginia’s mess might easily be dismissed as a continuation of a long history fraught with racial tension. From the arrival of slaves in the Old Dominion in 1619 to the 2017 tragedy of Charlottesville, the commonwealth has struggled with race. As late as 1989, when I became campaign manager for Doug Wilder’s governor’s race, some traditionalists in Richmond still referred to the Civil War as “The Late Unpleasantness.” No kidding.
Even so, it’s hard to see how educated young college men of Democratic leanings in the 1980s could think it was okay to engage in a blatantly racist blackface trope. Unsurprisingly, the reaction has been swift and brutal, with elected officials and community leaders across the country calling for Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring to resign.
To make the situation truly, tragically ironic, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, only the second African-American lieutenant governor in Virginia history, was accused of sexual assault. Not once, but twice.
And if that weren’t enough, there’s one more ugly surprise in this Sophoclean drama: If all three duly elected Democrats are forced to resign, Republican Kirk Cox, the Speaker of the House of Delegates will be elevated to the governor’s office. Although that might be politically unpalatable to Democrats, it seems a pretty straightforward governmental move. But, like everything else in this sordid telenovela, there’s a twist.
The 2016 General Assembly election was a squeaker. The House of Delegates was split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, with one race undecided. After a recount, the race was declared a tie, and through an arcane provision of the Virginia law, the winner of that race was decided by pulling a name out of a bowl. It’s almost unthinkable that the Old Dominion’s governorship would devolve to the luck of the draw.
How does Virginia resolve this tangled mess, freighted with more than 200 years of racist stereotypes, oppression and even lynchings — overlaid with the #MeToo movement? With all three statewide elected officials compromised, no state official has the stature to drive a solution.
Furthermore, it’s not even clear what a solution might look like because neither Northam nor Herring has broken the law or committed an offense rising to the level of impeachment, and there seems to be no appetite in the Virginia General Assembly to even try. The only salient reason for the governor or attorney general to resign is that they can’t effectively govern anymore.
That said, neither is going anywhere. Fifty-eight percent of African-Americans say they understand from Northam’s record that he’s no longer the same guy who was in that awful picture; they appreciate his record on civil rights, workplace fairness, health care and education. Same goes for Herring. As long as these men maintain support among African-Americans, they’re not budging.
Which leaves us with Lt. Gov. Fairfax. While both Northam and Herring have admitted their sins, Fairfax steadfastly maintains his innocence. Even in the #MeToo era, how can Democrats allow the white guys to skate, then oust an African-American on the basis of unproven allegations? It’s not politically tenable.
It’s not legally possible, either. You can’t impeach absent proof of wrongdoing, and neither of Fairfax’s accusers has filed charges with the police; instead, they have said they would be willing to testify before the legislature. That immediately raises the specter of an emotionally charged public circus a la Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughLocked and Loaded: Supreme Court is ready for a showdown on the Second Amendment Why Latinos need Supreme Court reform Feehery: A Republican Congress is needed to fight left's slide to autocracy MORE. Nobody wants that.
With Northam and Herring, the facts are not in dispute. In the case of Fairfax, there’s no obvious agency to investigate the facts, especially since a Kavanaugh-type hearing risks doing more harm than good. The general assembly may have professionals who could run a fair investigation, but delegates have shown no stomach for it. The governor might order the State Police to investigate the charges, but the alleged offenses took place in Massachusetts and North Carolina. It’s unclear whether that would be within his powers or if he retains the political standing to lead a credible effort. The FBI might be called in, but only if charges are filed by the alleged victims.
Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean there’s no solution. Here’s a start:
First, respect African-Americans’ views on what’s offensive, what’s forgivable and what’s not. Everyone has the right to say what insults or offends them. That’s not political correctness — it’s good manners. Respect the judgment of the offended parties when they offer forgiveness and support. A life of service, doing the right things, should count for something. The activists clamoring for blood need to back off.
Second, listen carefully to the women accusing Justin Fairfax. Take the allegations seriously. They deserve to be heard and respected.
Third, don’t rush to judgment. In hindsight many observers from across the political spectrum believe Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' Andrew Cuomo and the death of shame MORE (D-Minn.) didn’t get a fair shake; he asked for an investigation but was pushed out of office before the facts were heard. Maybe he was guilty, maybe not, but we’ll never know, and that’s not good for our political community or our country.
Fourth, everybody needs to quit making knee-jerk pronouncements. Think hard about what’s fair and move forward in good faith. The process of reconciliation requires patience and listening, especially when gender and race are in play.
Fifth, respect the facts and the process of finding them. We need look no further than the Kavanaugh disaster to see what not to do. Democrats rushed to judgment; Republicans stonewalled and made excuses. There was no due process, so everyone was left frustrated, angry and unreconciled.
Finally, we need to accept that we may never have the whole truth — and learn to live with it. Fairfax’s fate ultimately may be decided in the court of public opinion, simply because there’s no other viable venue. That result likely will leave many questions unanswered and be deeply unsatisfying.
What really matters, for Virginia and for the nation, is making a good-faith effort to do what’s right, fair and just, while respecting all the people involved. In our dyspeptic political age, Virginia can remind America how we ought to behave in a truly awful situation, even if the results are imperfect.
Joe McLean managed L. Douglas Wilder’s historic gubernatorial campaign and was a founding member of the leadership team of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEmanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing Public officials are under physical and digital siege We must protect and support our health care safety net MORE’s successful U.S. Senate race. McLean is president of the Crockett Policy Institute, a Tennessee-based nonpartisan think tank which seeks to provide practical, workable, and fair solutions to everyday problems in America's heartland.