What Vir­ginia needs

The Washington Post - - TUESDAY OPINION - EU­GENE ROBIN­SON

The de­ci­sion by Vir­ginia’s top three elected of­fi­cials, all Democrats, to hun­ker down and cling to their jobs is bad for both the state and the party. If they won’t go, the only thing to do is in­ves­ti­gate them all.

Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fair­fax and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark R. Her­ring have all for­feited the pub­lic’s trust and should re­sign. That would cre­ate an un­prece­dented po­lit­i­cal mess — but it’s use­less to spec­u­late what might hap­pen next, since all three are stay­ing put. They seem to have de­cided there is safety in num­bers.

I don’t see any way, re­al­is­ti­cally, that any­one can force them to leave, at least not yet. Un­der the state con­sti­tu­tion, elected lead­ers can be im­peached for “malfea­sance in of­fice, cor­rup­tion, ne­glect of duty, or other high crime or mis­de­meanor.” But the of­fi­cials are in trou­ble for things that tran­spired — or, in Fair­fax’s case, al­legedly did — long be­fore tak­ing of­fice. And no one has any idea what the bur­den of proof would be in a trial be­fore the state Se­nate.

Fair­fax faces the most se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions — and the most se­ri­ous im­peach­ment talk. But toss­ing him out of of­fice while let­ting Northam and Her­ring stay would be a po­lit­i­cal night­mare.

Fair­fax is ac­cused by one woman of sex­ual as­sault while both were at­tend­ing the 2004 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion and by an­other woman of rape while she and Fair­fax were un­der­grad­u­ates at Duke Univer­sity. He ve­he­mently and cat­e­gor­i­cally de­nies both al­le­ga­tions, claim­ing the en­coun­ters were con­sen­sual. Both women have said they are will­ing to tes­tify pub­licly; Fair­fax says he has noth­ing to hide.

The Fair­fax al­le­ga­tions, how­ever, have to be seen in the con­text of the Northam and Her­ring ad­mis­sions.

Northam is in trou­ble be­cause a hideously racist im­age — of a young man in black­face and an­other wear­ing a Ku Klux Klan robe — was found on his 1984 med­i­cal school year­book page. And be­cause, in deny­ing be­ing the man in the pic­ture wear­ing black­face, he re­vealed that he did wear black­face that same year on an­other oc­ca­sion. And be­cause he has sounded un­ac­cept­ably clue­less, in gen­eral, about race.

Her­ring is in trou­ble be­cause he, too, ac­knowl­edged once wear­ing black­face. It might be a good idea, at this point, to poll white Vir­ginia of­fi­cials and ask who hasn’t worn black­face.

A Post-Schar School poll showed that while white Vir­gini­ans were al­most evenly split on whether Northam should step down, African Amer­i­cans thought by a wide mar­gin that he should re­main in of­fice. Some an­a­lysts were sur­prised; I wasn’t. Northam’s pro­gres­sive poli­cies have been pop­u­lar, and African Amer­i­cans in the South are jaded about the pos­si­bil­ity that there might be racial skele­tons rat­tling around any politi­cian’s closet.

But my guess is that if poll­sters asked whether Fair­fax should be im­peached or forced to re­sign while Northam and Her­ring are al­lowed to stay, the re­sult would be quite dif­fer­ent.

Fair­fax is African Amer­i­can; he bears the name of Vir­ginia’s most pop­u­lous county, where his an­ces­tors were once en­slaved. When he was sworn in as lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, he had his great-great-great­grand­fa­ther’s man­u­mis­sion pa­pers in his pocket. If two white of­fi­cials caught up in scan­dal are given a pass while a black of­fi­cial caught up in scan­dal is forced out, the Vir­ginia Demo­cratic Party — which is heav­ily de­pen­dent on the African Amer­i­can vote — will have a lot of ex­plain­ing to do.

Vir­ginia is a pur­ple state that has been trend­ing de­cid­edly blue. Pres­i­dent Trump’s trans­par­ent at­tempt to pour salt into the wounds — “African Amer­i­cans are very an­gry at the dou­ble stan­dard on full dis­play in Vir­ginia!” he tweeted Sun­day — is a pre­view of what Democrats would surely face in 2020.

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery prom­i­nent Vir­ginia Demo­crat has called on Northam to re­sign, but he says he’s stay­ing put. That gives Fair­fax and Her­ring ev­ery in­cen­tive to stay put, too. Adding to the po­lit­i­cal angst, if all three Demo­cratic of­fi­cials were to re­sign, the next in line for the gov­er­nor­ship would be the speaker of the House of Del­e­gates, a Repub­li­can.

It seems to me that the only way for­ward is some kind of in­ves­tiga­tive process by the state leg­is­la­ture, com­menced as soon as pos­si­ble, that looks into the ac­knowl­edged or al­leged trans­gres­sions of all three of­fi­cials. Then there would be a more solid ba­sis for im­peach­ment or ab­so­lu­tion.

Let Vir­gini­ans hear all about Northam’s and Her­ring’s his­to­ries with race. Let the pub­lic hear di­rectly from both Fair­fax and his ac­cusers. Put every­body un­der oath, and let the cam­eras roll.

Sun­light is the best dis­in­fec­tant. With­out it, the open wounds in Richmond can only fes­ter.

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