The consequences for Virginian politicians should equal the impact of their transgressions.
By now, the events that have roiled the entire government of Virginia in a scandal, complete with everything from sexual assault to racism, has become national news. On Feb. 1, members of the media pointed out that Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook featured people dressed in blackface as well as Klan regalia, with a strong implication that one of the people was the governor. Northam denied being in the photo but did say that he had darkened his face to portray Michael Jackson once.
After Northam held a press conference claiming that he would not resign, two women came forward with sexual assault allegations against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, the next in line for the governorship if Northam were to resign or be removed. The next official in line after Fairfax is Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted to having used “brown makeup” to dress up like a popular rapper while in college. This means that the entire Democratic ticket that Virginia elected in 2017 is now implicated in scandals of a magnitude worthy of their removal from office.
As if that were not enough for one week, Tommy Norment, the Virginia Senate majority leader and highest ranking Republican, also got caught up in the larger outrage when it was revealed that he edited a yearbook in 1986 that featured racist language and depictions of students in blackface.
This most recent scandal complicates the situation because if every Democrat implicated in their respective wrongdoings had resigned, then Norment would have been governor, effectively giving control of a fully Democratic state at the executive level to a party that a majority of Virginians voted against in 2017.
However, the implication of a Republican having done the same thing that has Northam and Herring in hot water has almost caused the GOP’s pundits to turn a blind eye to the state’s scandals as a whole. Despite the fact that little has happened on this front in the past week, there still exist three different ways that the situation could be resolved which would give the people of Virginia governance they can trust.
The first and most ill-informed of the possible choices would be for all four of the officials to stay in power and continue business as usual. At the start of these events, that might have seemed impossible. However, the expansive and interconnected nature of their offenses makes this situation a daunting one, and these men obviously could not be trusted to abstain from making light of racial terror, or in the case of Fairfax, to respect women’s consent. Our faith should not rest on these pitiful excuses for leaders. Not only would this plan of action ruin the images of all those involved, it would likely weaken both parties’ establishments in a state whose increasingly progressive ideologies are beginning to show.
If all four of the high-ranking Virginian politicians currently involved in scandals were to resign, the cutthroat nature of the situation would only get worse. Though Northam already held a press conference where he stated that he would not be resigning, such a statement has not stopped politicians before — just ask Richard Nixon. What makes this instance dicey is that if Northam follows through on the calls for his resignation, then an alleged sexual predator will take over residence of the governor’s mansion. Additionally, if his constituents then persuade Fairfax to resign, the original problem remains. So in theory, the only resignation plan that could work would be one that had Northam, Fairfax, Herring and Norment resign. But there is a problem there too. Norment is a Republican, and if he follows the modern-day GOP’s moral code of win at any cost, then his resignation could be the least likely of all.
These two plans hold significant flaws, which is why I suggest a third possible solution. Fairfax has to go. The other three committed their racist acts decades ago, whereas Fairfax’s alleged sexual assault occurred at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. All four men deserve to be banned from public service, but only Fairfax’s borders on criminal behavior. Dressing in blackface harkens back to an era when instead of inciting a cringe it brought out the laughter of white people, but it pales in comparison to Fairfax’s alleged sexual assault.
If he is forced into resignation or removed by the General Assembly, it would actually then be possible to hold an election for lieutenant governor. At that point, the other three men could resign and make the newly elected official governor. These scandals are horrendous and difficult to navigate, but this plan would give the people of Virginia another chance at electing their leaders without destabilizing their government or putting someone into power who is grossly unfit for the job.
Virginia, a state that boasted four of the first five US presidents, is going through a complete cleaning out of its own closet. This is likely due to how far the state has progressed on social issues in the past decade or so. They turned what was almost a Republican supermajority in their state legislature into a mostly balanced divide, as well as elected the first trans state legislator in the country in Danica Roem. The people of Virginia are changing the way they see the world, but the leaders of both parties there are from an older era where the kinds of behavior that they are having to own up to were less frowned upon. This trend will continue across the country as politicians like Northam and Fairfax get put under a microscope, and if done properly, it could install elected officials who live up to their progressive political stances instead of just spouting them.