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.