Ferment Calling for Ouster of Top 3 State Elected Officials Cooling

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herrings are all under fire in the Commonwealth. (Official photos)

The frantic tempo of calls, demands and promises of action of leading Democratic officials that attended the first days of the dizzying sequence of ugly revelations and charges involving Virginia’s three top state elected officials, all Democrats — Gov. Ralph Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring — in the last two weeks has cooled in recent days, maybe due at least in part to a less than enthusiastic participation by the party’s rank and file.

Meetings called by Arlington Democrats in the last days and an array of email comments and many other communiques suggest this. Under the leadership of Arlington Democrats’ chair Jill Caiazzo, two “listening sessions” were held in the last week to sound out Democrat constituents on the crises, one focused on the race issue last Thursday, and a second on the sexual assault issue Sunday night. Nuance prevailed in both, with issues of due process, definitions of consent, overly quick condemnations, racial factors in passing swift judgments being aired.

On the weekend of Feb. 1-2, swift and strident demands came from virtually all Democratic elected officials in the state, not to mention from Republicans, that all three officials resign for their roles, in the cases of Northam and Herring, in wearing racially-offensive “blackface” makeup in the 1980s and, in the case of Fairfax, in the face of allegations of sexual assault and rape in the last two decades.

But things began to change beginning with Northam the day after damning evidence was first revealed against him on Feb. 2, when he held a press conference refusing demands to resign in the context of rescinding a day-earlier apparent confession that a medical school yearbook photo showing an offensive blackface makeup next to another with Ku Klux Klan garb actually were of him.

That happened just as earlier allegations against Fairfax, who would have been Northam’s successor had he resigned, resurfaced from a woman, associate college professor Dr. Vanessa Tyson, claiming he had assaulted her in his hotel room during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. Even though the Washington Post had vetted that allegation last year and determined it could not be corroborated, and Fairfax insisted the encounter was “consensual,” a cascade of Democratic elected officials’ demands for Fairfax’s resignation, on top of Northam’s, ensued almost instantly.

The ink on headlines about that had barely dried when Herring, who would be second in line of succession to replace the governor behind Fairfax, stepped forward with his own confession of a party where he wore blackface in college.

Between Friday, Feb. 1, when the first yearbook evidence against Northam surfaced thanks to a right wing website, and Monday, Feb. 4, when the Herring news hit the papers, the Virginia Democratic Party went from being on a historic roll, holding all three statewide offices and gearing to win control of the state’s Senate and House of Delegates in this year’s elections, to being seemingly in total disarray and writhing on the floor.

Pundits were astonished that Northam had not consented to resign in the first 24 hours of his scandal, and his lengthy press conference on Saturday was characterized as awkward and desperate. He apparently hurt his cause when he volunteered to being a Michael Jackson fan in college and dressed in blackface at a party.

But clearly, blackface is a cruel form of racial prejudice in the long and unsavory history of Virginia as the capital of a Confederate insurgency that sought to rend the United States in two in defense of slavery, a popular legacy that has been carried forward to include the naming of the official University of Virginia yearbook “The Cork and Curls,” alluding to how blackface is applied, to this day.

Many Democratic officials deferred to the calls of the Democratic Black Caucus of the legislature for resignations by Northam and Herring, joining in solidarity with those calls. The judgments against Fairfax were equally swift, with pronouncements by Democratic elected officials on social media setting off firestorms, though definite evidence of a lack of consensus became clear as the comments piled up.

The momentum began to fade overall by Feb. 7. An editorial in the Falls Church News-Press read, “How ironic that for all of the ugliness of the pasts from which they may have come, our leaders in Virginia today who are being so harshly judged now all chose in their adult lives to walk the paths of equality, justice and healing.”

The Virginia House Democrats issued a statement from Richmond later that day which dropped all references to resignation demands while affirming a “deep and unequivocal disappointment in our governor and attorney general,” and “a continuing monitoring of the allegations against the lieutenant governor.”

“This is not a partisan problem,” the statement read. “This weekend we will be speaking with our constituents about their thoughts on how we best move forward as a Commonwealth past these difficult days and toward a place of healing,” and “doing the (legislative) work our constituents elected us to do.”

On Friday, Feb. 8, news of a second woman, Meredith Watson, making allegations of rape against Fairfax (claimed while both were students at Duke University in 2000) surfaced, and that afternoon State Del. Patrick Hope of Arlington rekindled the call for immediate judgment by stating that, despite Fairfax’s denials, if Fairfax did not resign by Monday, he would introduce a formal call for his impeachment in the state legislature.

Issues swirled around the questions of the formalities of impeachment on the weekend, and by Sunday night’s “listening session” in Arlington, some were accusing Hope of “unilateral grandstanding,” even though a former Hope aide present insisted that such an approach is not in the delegate’s nature.

County Party chair Caiazzo conceded she was conflicted on the best response to the crisis, but ended the meeting by affirming the importance of Democrats “not losing traction on our progressive agenda,” and the need “to still focus on what we want to accomplish.”

Fairfax called for the FBI to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations against him.

This Monday, Hope dropped his plan to initiate impeachment proceedings against Fairfax, and Northam announced that he is dedicating the final years of his term as governor to focusing on civil rights concerns, issuing a press release on Tuesday noting that since he took over just over a year ago, “the civil rights of 10,992 Virginians previously convicted of a felony” had been restored, including the right to vote, serve on a jury, run for public office and become a notary public.

“This is an important achievement that marks my administration’s unwavering commitment to fairness, rehabilitation, and restorative justice,” the statement said, noting that the effort built on the reforms of two of his predecessor governors, Robert McDonnell and Terry McAuliffe.

For its scheduled monthly meeting next week, the Falls Church City Democratic Committee chair Peg Willingham sent out a memo Tuesday urging board members to “share their own thoughts” on the “current political situation in Virginia,” but suggested that members of the group “do not address other persons directly or comment on what they have said.”

Wednesday morning, respected Virginia Democratic figure Lawrence Roberts, former counselor to Sen. Tim Kaine and the Democratic National Committee, who has remained as Fairfax’s chief of staff in the wake of other staff resignations, issued a statement on social media saying, “I go to work today as a long-time supporter of the Violence Against Women Act and its reauthorization. I also go to work today as a continued supporter of our lieutenant governor.”

He added, “I do not see those as inconsistent statements because of my firm belief that the lieutenant governor has not committed such violence against anyone ever. Women and men deserve to be heard and given safe space to tell their stories, to be understood, and to ensure that encounters are assessed fairly and with sensitivity to all concerned. For both women and men, we have a long way to go in our society to make that possible. Continuing on such a journey in a purposeful and timely way is essential.”