Virginia Democrats look for a way out of the mire
In high-stakes election year, party lacks leader to guide it past scandals
RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring are staying. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is fighting. And Virginia Democrats are grappling with how to proceed in a situation with no precedent and no one leading the way out of one of the party’s most disastrous weeks in history.
In the corridors of the state Capitol here, Virginia Democrats have spent the past week in a state of shock: scurrying to budget negotiations, walking stone-faced past banks of TV cameras and almost universally declining to talk publicly — and even to one another — about the scandals that have engulfed their party.
More than a week has passed since images emerged of Northam’s medical school yearbook page depicting a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Since then, two women have accused Fairfax of sexual assault — and Herring has admitted that he wore blackface as a young man.
All of it is playing out at the worst possible moment — at the start of a high-stakes election year, when the party is hoping to take control of the legislature and
form the crest of a Democratic wave that could spill into the presidential race in 2020.
As a group, Virginia Democrats have publicly embraced their party’s zero tolerance for racism and sexual violence. They called for Northam’s resignation, and then for Fairfax’s departure as well, after a second accuser came forward Friday. They condemned Herring but stopped short of calling for him to step down.
But privately, Democrats are divided, particularly about whether ousting Northam is best for their party. Some want to talk about how far Virginia has come from its painful, racist past. Others are uncomfortable about offering redemption to the two white men but not the African American man, who has vehemently denied the allegations. No one seems to know how to live by the rules their party has set on race and gender, or how to take the first step toward whatever comes next.
“I am keeping my nose to the grindstone,” said Barbara A. Favola, a Democratic state senator from the Northern Virginia suburbs, echoing what most lawmakers said, although most were unwilling to speak publicly. “The leaders we have elected are contemplating whether they should remain in office, and I want to give them space at the moment.”
Favola spoke before a second woman accused Fairfax of sexual assault; since then, virtually all Virginia Democrats have demanded his resignation. One, Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), said he would introduce articles of impeachment against Fairfax.
But divisions remain about how to contend with Northam and Herring.
Some Democrats declared all three officeholders politically doomed but predicted that Northam and Herring, at least, would remain in office as lame ducks until the elections in 2021. Others who had publicly called for Northam’s ouster said privately that he should stay, especially with Fairfax in political jeopardy.
“What happened in the first 48 hours was completely legitimate anger, but we need a governor to run the state,” said J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax City), a state senator and one of the few Democrats who has said publicly that Northam should stay. “We need to use this as a teaching moment to talk about how the state has changed since 1984. And we can do that without humiliating people.”
Northam seemed to be heeding that advice this past weekend, sitting for an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday and another with CBS on Sunday, in which he said he plans to serve out his term — and devote the remainder of it to pursuing policies to combat racial inequality.
“Right now, Virginia needs someone that can heal. There’s no better person to do that than a doctor,” Northam, who was a doctor in the Army and then a pediatric neurologist in Norfolk as a civilian, said in his CBS interview. “Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere.”
Democratic leaders have urged their colleagues not to talk about the scandals, and most lawmakers declined to speak on the record. Jennifer B. Boysko, a newly elected state senator whose district includes Dulles International Airport, shook her head and smiled politely as a reporter peppered her with questions outside her legislative office in Richmond on Thursday. The scene repeated with at least a dozen other Democratic lawmakers.
Several white lawmakers said privately that discussing the racial elements of the controversy is particularly tricky because no one feels comfortable forgiving behavior that African American lawmakers have condemned.
“I honestly believe that most people are very uncomfortable talking about racial differences,” said Kaye Kory, a state delegate who represents a large minority population and a strong constituency of female activists in her liberal Fairfax County district. “A lot of people are worried about what to say.”
Black lawmakers have been particularly tight-lipped, holding long, closed-door meetings since the scandals began and leaving others to speculate that they, too, might be divided. Some white Democrats said they were surprised when the Legislative Black Caucus issued a statement late Thursday sticking with its earlier call for Northam’s resignation.
The controversies have also prompted some private fingerpointing and reassessment of the party’s embrace of race and gender as its most important touchstones. One white lawmaker surmised that the Black Caucus was quick to call for Northam to step aside because the man poised to replace him, Fairfax, is African American. A female lawmaker criticized federal officeholders for immediately siding with Fairfax’s accuser. Although that dynamic shifted when a second accuser came forward Friday, this lawmaker said some of the public posturing has revealed more about the ambitions and agendas of those taking positions than about the circumstances at hand.
Herring and Fairfax were previously seen as contenders to run for governor in 2021. With that prospect dimming, Democrats are also trying to focus on the immediate goal of winning legislative majorities this fall — and controlling all of Virginia government for the first time since 1970.
Democrats need just one more seat in the Senate and two in the House to take control. And with a newly drawn district map on the House side, they had trumpeted the potential for the party’s long run of success in Virginia to continue this fall with the help of the powerful antipathy to President Trump in the state’s diverse, high-population suburbs.
Virtually everyone agrees that Northam will be hobbled — unable to fill the traditional role in an off-year election of fundraiser in chief and campaign-trail celebrity. Although Kory, for instance, said “my constituents are not jumping up and down screaming for Governor Northam to resign,” she also wouldn’t say whether she would invite Northam to campaign with her for her fall election.
Daniel Christakos, a Democratic consultant, described how the basic machinery of electoral politics has slowed because of the uncertainty gripping the state.
Last week, he was in the Dulles area gathering signatures to help a candidate qualify for the ballot, a task that he said would usually take about 20 seconds per person. Instead, each encounter lasted 20 minutes or more because everyone, Democrat or Republican, wanted to kvetch about the controversies.
“They want to help out,” he said, “but they’re distracted about what’s going on.”
Several Democrats said it will be up to the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine — the closest thing the party has to senior statesmen — to find a way forward. Kaine is a former Virginia governor and national party chair. Warner was governor before Kaine and is a former state party chair.
Both senators sent senior aides to Richmond last week to try to calm lawmakers and put the scandals into perspective. But publicly, they have offered minimal input beyond their written statements. After a second Fairfax accuser came forward Friday, the two offered differing opinions, with Kaine demanding Fairfax’s resignation and Warner saying only that he should go “if” the allegations are true.
Warner’s caution may derive from his own political challenges; he faces reelection next year for the first time since he eked out a victory against Ed Gillespie in 2014.
Aneesh Chopra, the nation’s first chief technology officer under former president Barack Obama and a former Cabinet secretary for Kaine, said Warner and Kaine may have to “put the thumb on the scale” to help the party.
“It may not be the role they want to take,” he said, “but it’s the role they may have to take to move the commonwealth forward.”
In Richmond, many Democratic lawmakers are tight-lipped about the scandals involving Virginia’s top officials. Democrats are also trying to focus on winning legislative majorities this fall — and controlling all of Virginia’s government for the first time since 1970.
Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico) is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, which has called on Gov. Ralph Northam to resign.
Virginia’s top officials, Justin Fairfax, left, Mark R. Herring and Northam, in 2017 before Fairfax and Northam took office.