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.

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