Virginia government slips into chaos as scandals shroud political leaders

Both the governor and lieutenant governor are facing clouds of political controversy. Photo by Erin Edgerton

Fadel Allassan, News Editor

Inside the country’s oldest occupied governor’s mansion stays the besieged Ralph Northam — the Virginia executive around whom the walls of the dwelling are rapidly closing amid the fallout from a racist yearbook photo.

The photo, from Northam’s page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, shows a man in blackface standing next to another in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. Northam initially said he was one of the people depicted, but he reversed his story the next day.

At a press conference Saturday, Northam denied being in the photo, but admitted he once “darkened” his face to compete as Michael Jackson in a dance competition. The admission did nothing to stop calls for his resignation coming from every direction, including from some of his closest Democratic political allies.    

Some protesters, who were once enthusiastic about Northam’s potential removal, now have reason to be apprehensive about his would-be successor.   

Monday morning, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax launched an aggressive front against his own scandal — an allegation that he sexually assaulted a woman while working as a political aide in 2004.

Fairfax faced a gaggle of reporters at the statehouse, denying a woman’s allegations that he sexually assaulted her in 2004, implying the allegations are an attempt to preclude his potential rise to the governorship.

“Does anybody think it’s any coincidence that on the eve of potentially my being elevated, that that’s when this smear comes out?” Fairfax told reporters.

Fairfax never held political office before serving in his current role, but worked as an aide to Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards during the time the alleged incident occurred. He described a sexual encounter he had with the woman to reporters as “100 percent consensual.”

A reporter in the gaggle insinuated the possibility that Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who could be a potential opponent to Fairfax for the Democratic governorship nomination in 2021, may have played a role in the allegations surfacing.

“You’re a great reporter,” Fairfax responded.

“This insinuation is 100 percent not true. Period,” said a spokesperson for the mayor to The Washington Post.

The events have put Capitol Grounds in a state of disarray, as Northam was reported to have met with his cabinet Monday morning to tell them he would stay in office for now to clear his name. But for the protesters outside the Governor’s Mansion during the reported meeting, that idea would have been unacceptable.

The crowd of several dozen was matched in number by the myriad news outlets covering the group, but the message was strong: the governor has to step down.

For these dissidents, many of whom held signs objecting to the governor’s environmental policies, the photo was only the latest in a pattern of objectionable actions by the governor.

Representatives of left-leaning social and political groups lined up to denounce the governor for actions that span from the beginning of his term to the last Saturday’s press conference. To them, Northam’s claim that he knew he was not in the photo because he remembers appearing in blackface another time wasn’t convincing.

“Your complete lack of racial sensitivity did not allow for you to understand why this was a problem,” said Andrea Noller, reading a statement directed at Northam to the crowd of protesters. “You betrayed our trust and under these circumstances, cannot continue to be our governor.”

Noller is an activist with the Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. She was also among the many speakers at the makeshift rally for whom the recent events serve as a proxy to dissect a year’s worth of the new governor’s politics.

Pointing to the governor’s departures from liberal positions to compromise with Republican colleagues, Noller said Northam could not be expected to act in the best interest of people of color in the commonwealth. Among these was a deal struck between the parties to raise the state’s felony larceny threshold from $200 to $500 last year, despite liberal members of the legislature favoring a larger increase.  

“Racist politicians create racist policies and uphold racist systems,” Noller said.

Tatiana Seryán, with the Center for Popular Democracy, likened the governor’s refusal to step down to “an illness which plagues many politicians in office today.”

“It’s not just affluenza, but ‘powerfluenza,’” Seryán said. “We are telling you in unified voice that you are not the leader we want. Resign now.”

For Ana Edwards, a founding member of the Virginia Defender, a quarterly community newspaper, Northam is just the tip of the iceberg. The Democratic Party, Edwards said, is responsible for poor leadership in Virginia.

“It’s time we hold them accountable on all levels, including who they support to put in office,” Edwards said.

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