Against the Grain

The Democratic Disaster in Virginia

Gov. Ralph Northam turned into a political pariah overnight after a racist photo from his past emerged. His lieutenant governor is now facing uncomfortable political scrutiny.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, accompanied by his wife, Pam, speaks during a news conference in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Va., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Northam is under fire for a racist photo that appeared in his college yearbook.
AP Photo/Steve Helber
Feb. 5, 2019, 10:44 a.m.

The fraught politics surrounding race, gender, and the #MeToo movement are creating a combustible challenge for Democrats that raises uncomfortable questions about their zero-tolerance policy towards any type of sexual misconduct, past or present—and threaten to prevent them from winning back control of the Virginia state legislature this November.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has given Democrats their worst political headache since losing the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. Any photo of a politician wearing blackface is a massive political scandal—and would have been at any time or any place since the photo was taken in 1984. The only difference between the politics of today and the politics of the recent past is that Northam probably would have received more space from his party to apologize, make amends, and try to salvage a respectable political career.

Northam expected that his solid civil rights record, long-standing support from the black community, and praise for his reaction to Charlottesville (as a candidate) would sustain him during this scandal. Presumably that’s what he was thinking when he offered a taped apology seemingly acknowledging he was pictured in a medical-school yearbook wearing either blackface or a KKK hood and asking for forgiveness.

But Northam was utterly unprepared to handle the speed with which the news would spread and his closest political allies would call on him to resign. The day after the story broke, he gave a cringeworthy press conference in which he denied being pictured in the racist yearbook photo but acknowledged wearing blackface that same year imitating Michael Jackson at a dance party. This was damage control out of a sleepy state Senate race—not what you’d expect during a national political firestorm that swept talk of Trump’s State of the Union address out of the headlines.

Most politicians would resign out of sheer embarrassment, but Northam appears determined to stick things out to clear his name, at least for the short term. Without any support from either party, he’s got little left to lose. He’s ineligible to run for a second term, and Virginia law sets the bar for impeachment high—limited to serious crimes, not damning political scandals.

Adding to the Democratic mess is a controversy surrounding Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a rising star who would become the country’s only African-American governor if Northam resigned. His strong standing in the state made it easy for Democrats to push Northam aside, knowing they had a replacement who was ready to govern and would allow them to maintain Democratic control of the governorship.

But now Fairfax’s political future is in question after a woman accused him of sexual assault in 2004—an allegation that was first published in the same right-wing blog that ran the Northam yearbook photo. Fairfax put out a public statement unequivocally denying the accusation and threatening legal action to anyone who aired the story. His reaction quickly made it into stories published by The Washington Post and The New York Times, and the lieutenant governor was forced to address the issue at a Monday press scrum. At one point, he even hinted that Northam’s team could be behind the oppo drop.

Before the rise of the #MeToo movement, an allegation without any corroborating evidence would have gotten little political purchase or public airing. But at a time when leading Democrats have called on the public to believe all women alleging sexual misconduct, their treatment of Fairfax is going to come under scrutiny and make things awkward.

Will any prominent Democrats call for Fairfax to step down if there simply are dueling accusations that can’t adequately be resolved? Any unfair treatment of Fairfax would threaten to divide the Democratic coalition along racial and gender lines—not to mention the emerging field of 2020 presidential candidates. It would blow apart the remarkably effective coalition the party has built in Virginia, which was looking unbeatable in the wake of Trump’s election.

Beyond the national political machinations, Democrats are blowing their best opportunity to take back both branches of the Virginia legislature since 1995. Republicans hold a tiny, two-seat advantage in the state Senate that looked vulnerable, and a similarly narrow majority in the House of Delegates. All seats are up, and the momentum was on the Democratic side. They were counting on anti-Trump energy and Republican apathy as the formula for success in a low-turnout election.

At this stage, that all seems like wishful thinking. Republicans were already fired up over Northam’s support for legislation loosening late-term abortion restrictions (which is what led a classmate to leak the incriminating photo in the first place). Democrats are disillusioned. It’s easy to imagine Democratic turnout being depressed in an off-year election when few voters show up anyway.

The political damage that Northam unleashed threatens to create an uncomfortable dilemma for Democrats looking to square their values with their political self-interest. It’s a volatile moment that demonstrates how some of the anti-Trump energy could turn against them in the future.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

What We're Following See More »
AVOIDS SHUTDOWN WITH A FEW HOURS TO SPARE
Trump Signs Border Deal
2 days ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Source:
REDIRECTS $8 BILLION
Trump Declares National Emergency
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

Source:
COULD SOW DIVISION AMONG REPUBLICANS
House Will Condemn Emergency Declaration
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

"House Democrats are gearing up to pass a joint resolution disapproving of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move that will force Senate Republicans to vote on a contentious issue that divides their party. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Thursday evening in an interview with The Washington Post that the House would take up the resolution in the coming days or weeks. The measure is expected to easily clear the Democratic-led House, and because it would be privileged, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be forced to put the resolution to a vote that he could lose."

Source:
MILITARY CONSTRUCTION, DRUG FORFEITURE FUND
Where Will the Emergency Money Come From?
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

"ABC News has learned the president plans to announce on Friday his intention to spend about $8 billion on the border wall with a mix of spending from Congressional appropriations approved Thursday night, executive action and an emergency declaration. A senior White House official familiar with the plan told ABC News that $1.375 billion would come from the spending bill Congress passed Thursday; $600 million would come from the Treasury Department's drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion would come from the Pentagon's drug interdiction program; and through an emergency declaration: $3.5 billion from the Pentagon's military construction budget."

Source:
TRUMP SAYS HE WILL SIGN
House Passes Funding Deal
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

"The House passed a massive border and budget bill that would avert a shutdown and keep the government funded through the end of September. The Senate passed the measure earlier Thursday. The bill provides $1.375 billion for fences, far short of the $5.7 billion President Trump had demanded to fund steel walls. But the president says he will sign the legislation, and instead seek to fund his border wall by declaring a national emergency."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login