Moral Turpitude Finds Its Home In Virginia

To say that developments in Virginia politics have been dizzying and downright heartbreaking lately does not begin to describe what has happened in Richmond over the past two weeks. 

When I wrote my last column in the Old Gold & Black after a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page came to light, the best path forward seemed obvious: Northam should resign and leave the governorship to Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax in accordance with the Virginia constitution. I thought at the time that by forfeiting the trust of his constituents, Northam had lost the right to govern, and that if Fairfax became Virginia’s second African-American governor, he would be well-positioned to lead the Commonwealth as it grappled with the aftermath of the crisis. I was hopeful that that transition would occur quickly.

But everything has changed since then.

Not only has Northam vowed to stay in office, but controversies have also engulfed the next two constitutionally designated successors to the governorship, adding to Virginia politics’ extraordinary turmoil. Two women have come forward to accuse Fairfax of sexual assault — one from Duke University in 2000 and one from the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. Almost all of the Democratic leaders and lawmakers who had favored Fairfax becoming governor just one week prior then pivoted and called for him to resign. Then, to deepen the crisis, Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he had worn blackface at a party in 1980 when he was 19 years old. The fourth in the line of succession for the governorship is Del. Kirk Cox, the Speaker of the House of Delegates — a Republican.

Virginia now faces an excruciating set of possible outcomes, and Old Dominion voters like me have no direct say. If Northam stays in office, or if Fairfax or Herring succeeds him, the governor will be compromised. If all three resign, the moral authority of government will be preserved, but the new governor will come from a party which the majority of Virginians did not choose. Only elections should change partisan control.

To be sure, the only reason why the House of Delegates is currently in Republican control, 51 to 49 — and why Cox is fourth in line to be governor — is because the race that was pivotal for control of the lower chamber of the General Assembly ended in a statistical tie. Virginia State Board of Elections officials decided the outcome by literally pulling the winner’s name from a bowl. While resignation would be the just and honorable choice for Northam, Fairfax and Herring, a Cox administration would still not be a good outcome for residents of the Commonwealth, in my view.

Virginia Democratic lawmakers on Sunday circulated a draft resolution to begin impeachment proceedings against Fairfax if he does not resign, but waters are very murky in regards to whether the sexual assault accusations against him — or his recent claims that the allegations were a smear campaign orchestrated by Northam and Mayor of Richmond Levar Stoney — could be considered impeachable offenses under the Virginia constitution. Democrats would also face an uncomfortable dynamic if they ponder ousting Fairfax, a black man, while two white men accused of racism stay in office.

The Washington Post also released a flowchart outlining complex possibilities in which Democrats could finagle a governorship held by someone other than Northam, Fairfax, Herring or Cox. For example, Fairfax could resign and Northam could appoint a new lieutenant governor before resigning himself, and the new lieutenant governor could assume the governorship. But at this point, thanks to the mile-a-minute news cycle, chances are high that attention will move on from the travails of Virginia politics and all three men will stay in office for the duration of their terms. Weirdly, as the political situation deteriorates and they continue to stubbornly hang on, that’s probably the most likely (albeit still abhorrent) scenario.

Although Fairfax continues to vehemently deny the accusations against him, both Northam and Herring have technically apologized, but sorry is never good enough for behavior too egregious to be swept away. And neither of them have had a true road-to-Damascus moment. In a forehead-on-the-keyboard interview on “Face the Nation” this week after his scandal came to light, Northam referred to the slaves who arrived on Virginia’s Eastern Shore beginning in 1619 as “indentured servants from Africa.” Obviously, he has not begun to understand the depth of the progress that he needs to make internally, much less as Virginia’s governor.

Recent days have been difficult to endure as a Virginian proud of my home and once proud of those who governed it. Even if the three top statewide officials survive their respective scandals and cling to their offices, the rest of the Old Dominion state — most especially persons of color and women — will be dealing with the consequences for a long time to come.