‘The lesser of three evils’

A ma­jor­ity-black town’s res­i­dents weigh state lead­ers’ fu­tures.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEVE HEN­DRIX steve.hen­[email protected]­post.com

peters­burg, va. — Brent Phillips, a white bar­tender in this his­tor­i­cally black city, spent part of a Fri­day happy hour work­ing a men­tal aba­cus to de­cide who would — or should — be run­ning the com­mon­wealth where he has lived his whole life.

“Let’s see, you’ve got the gov­er­nor with the black­face, he should prob­a­bly just re­sign now,” Phillips said, count­ing on his fin­gers at the pa­tio bar of DJ’s Ra­jun Ca­jun, a light-strung Mardi Gras out­post in this di­lap­i­dated, an­te­bel­lum out­post on the Ap­po­mat­tox River.

“But then you have the lieu­tenant gov­er­nor with the sex­ual [as­sault ac­cu­sa­tion] and then the at­tor­ney gen­eral with his black­face story.” Phillips, 30, trailed off, shook his head and reached for a sooth­ing rum punch.

“You shouldn’t have to make these cal­cu­la­tions,” he said. “In Vir­ginia, you shouldn’t have to choose the lesser of three evils.”

It was the kind of head-scratch­ing, fin­ger-tick­ing re­cal­cu­la­tion that Vir­gini­ans across the com­mon­wealth are do­ing as se­rial scan­dals en­gulf the high­est reaches of their gov­ern­ment. In this im­pov­er­ished city of 32,000, peo­ple are star­ing at the mael­strom sur­round­ing all three statewide-elected of­fi­cials, won­der­ing who will emerge in­tact and what it all means that Vir­ginia’s vaunted rep­u­ta­tion for po­lit­i­cal dig­nity is be­ing sucked into the shred­ders of late-night com­edy.

Within hours, an even more se­ri­ous bomb would drop, with a sec­ond woman ac­cus­ing Lt. Gov. Justin Fair­fax of sex­u­ally as­sault­ing her when the two were stu­dents at Duke Uni­ver­sity. Soon, de­spite Fair­fax’s de­nial of the al­le­ga­tions, Demo­cratic of­fi­cials across the state and the coun­try were call­ing for his res­ig­na­tion.

“It’s so much chaos, I’ve never seen any­thing like it,” said Peters­burg Mayor Sa­muel Parham, who wor­ried that paral­y­sis in the cap­i­tal would stall Peters­burg’s slow re­cov­ery from near bank­ruptcy in 2016. “It’s lit­tle cities like ours that suf­fer.”

But Parham, like other black res­i­dents in this cross­road of African Amer­i­can and Civil War his­tory, said he was not sur­prised to see Jim Crow iconog­ra­phy pop­ping from the scrap­book pasts of white politi­cians.

“This is deep-rooted in Vir­ginia,” said Parham, 42, an African Amer­i­can ex­ec­u­tive at a clean­ing com­pany be­gin­ning his sec­ond term as Peters­burg’s mayor. “If there is good to come out of this tragedy, maybe it’s that when the chaos has set­tled, we’ll fi­nally be able to have a con­ver­sa­tion about Vir­ginia’s racial di­vide.”

His view of the tur­moil is shared by most black Vir­gini­ans, 58 per­cent of whom want Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to re­main in of­fice, ac­cord­ing to a Wash­ing­ton PostSchar School poll. Whites are evenly di­vided about whether Northam should stay or step down.

The chaos that is rock­ing Richmond started Feb. 1, when a page sur­faced from Northam’s 1984 med­i­cal school year­book show­ing a fig­ure in black­face next to some­one in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe, ap­par­ently at a party. Amid wide­spread calls for the gov­er­nor’s res­ig­na­tion, the first ac­cu­sa­tion of sex­ual as­sault emerged against the of­fi­cial in line to re­place him, Fair­fax (D), who has de­nied the al­le­ga­tion. As eyes turned to the third in line, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark R. Her­ring (D), he pre­emp­tively an­nounced that he had dressed up as a rap­per, in black­face, when he was a 19-year-old col­lege stu­dent.

The pan­de­mo­nium has some in Peters­burg want­ing to munch pop­corn — “I think it’s hi­lar­i­ous watch­ing the Democrats at­tack­ing each other for a change,” a white pa­tron leav­ing the Dixie Restau­rant said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity — and oth­ers want­ing to pop Xanax.

Jas­myn Clan­ton stud­ies crim­i­nal jus­tice at Vir­ginia State Uni­ver­sity, the his­tor­i­cally black col­lege that sits on a bluff above Peters­burg. Walk­ing be­tween classes, the 21-year-old from Nor­folk mar­veled at the rapid-fire rev­e­la­tions and pre­dicted more.

“It’s dis­turb­ing,” said Clan­ton, who had just turned in a class pa­per on min­strel-era sym­bol­ism in mod­ern pop cul­ture. “Some­one put that pic­ture [from Northam’s year­book page] on In­sta­gram and said, ‘This is your boss.’ You just have to go around all the time re­al­iz­ing that this could be your doc­tor, your lawyer, your teacher.”

Mekayla Lundy, 20, an­other crim­i­nal jus­tice ma­jor, said she had been ready to for­give Northam un­til his apol­ogy for the photo sud­denly mor­phed into a con­fus­ing de­nial. The gov­er­nor claimed he was not one of the peo­ple in the photo but said he had “dark­ened his face” to dress as Michael Jack­son on an­other oc­ca­sion. “If you can’t ad­mit fault, you can’t be a good leader,” Lundy said.

“Just say you’re wrong and move on,” Clan­ton said.

Still nei­ther stu­dent was ready to call for his res­ig­na­tion. That was a com­mon sen­ti­ment among res­i­dents of Peters­burg, a town that is 77 per­cent black and where more than 8 in 10 vot­ers cast bal­lots for Northam in 2017.

Parham said he hoped the gov­er­nor would stick it out and turn the scan­dal into a mo­ment of racial reck­on­ing. “There’s so much talk about the new Vir­ginia and the melt­ing pot, but when you drive up and down [In­ter­state] 95 in this part of the state, you see more Con­fed­er­ate flags than any­where,” Parham said. “He has work to do, and I want him to stay and do it.”

A few blocks away, in the park­ing lot of the 130-year-old Taber­na­cle Bap­tist Church, Calvin Robb was get­ting into his car and lament­ing what he called a rush to judg­ment. “The gov­er­nor was young, and we all change,” said Robb, a re­tired nurse. “The Bi­ble says a man who looks be­hind can never go for­ward.”

Robb de­cried his com­mu­nity’s fix­a­tion on race as too back­ward­look­ing. Even face paint can be neu­tral, he ar­gued. Sev­eral churches where he has been a dea­con hold “mime min­istry” events in which African Amer­i­can chil­dren wear white face paint and per­form non­ver­bal litur­gi­cal dances, he said. The 63-year-old said he of­ten dis­agrees with mod­ern pri­or­i­ties.

“Why aren’t these pas­tors speak­ing out about things that re­ally are against God, like ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity?” Robb asked.

The church shares the park­ing lot with Clay­burn Square, a lowrise se­nior-liv­ing apart­ment where Tr­isha Storey was smok­ing a cig­a­rette on the side­walk. The 68-yearold was born in this to­bacco town and lived here un­til the Brown and Wil­liamson com­pany moved its work­force and her hus­band out of state in the 1980s. Now wid­owed, she is one of just a few white res­i­dents in her build­ing.

“I get along with ev­ery­body here, ex­cept one woman who’s crazy,” Storey said, sit­ting on the stool of her pink rolling walker. “We just treat each other like peo­ple.”

She hasn’t heard any of her friends call for Northam to step down, and she hopes he doesn’t. “I don’t want any­one to judge me on who I was when I was 25,” she said.

But Max­amil­lian Pat­ter­son is 25 now, and the black cook wasn’t buy­ing it.

“He ab­so­lutely should step down,” said Pat­ter­son, who was or­der­ing lunch at the counter of the Dixie Restau­rant. “You can’t have that kind of bi­ased back­ground and look out for all your vot­ers, black, white, Mex­i­can, Asian.”

Pat­ter­son works across the street at Longstreet’s Deli, and both his lunch spot and his din­ner shift are on Cor­ling’s Cor­ner, where a his­tor­i­cal marker notes that en­slaved peo­ple were once bought, sold and even rented at that spot.

“We’ve got a deep his­tory of all this,” he said.

A few ta­bles away, Cyn­thia Mas­ten, 41, feared the wave of scan­dals would swamp the gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to ad­dress other is­sues, par­tic­u­larly the opi­oid cri­sis that had al­ready caused the death of her hus­band and a cousin.

“It’s out of con­trol,” Mas­ten said. “The time they waste on this stupid stuff, they could be help­ing peo­ple who re­ally need it.”

For some Repub­li­cans in this part of the state, the in­ter­lock­ing scan­dals pre­sented a tricky cal­cu­la­tion of an­other sort. If all three Demo­cratic of­fi­cials should fall, the gov­er­nor’s job would pass to the Repub­li­can speaker of the House of Del­e­gates, Kirk Cox.

Cox was born in Peters­burg and rep­re­sents Colo­nial Heights, just across the river where much of Peters­burg’s white pop­u­la­tion has shifted over the decades.

Ran­dall Wach­man II is a Colo­nial Heights fi­nan­cial ad­viser who was wait­ing for friends at Peters­burg’s Brick­house Run, a stylish pub on a cob­ble­stone al­ley. He would pre­fer to see a Repub­li­can in the gov­er­nor’s man­sion, but he does not want any­one to fall vic­tim to a “PC whirl­wind.”

“If it got to Cox, that would be great,” Wach­man said, turn­ing back to his pint. “But would it re­ally be fair? It’s not what vot­ers voted for.”

He did not ex­pect a quick res­o­lu­tion, as res­ig­na­tion calls came and went, new ac­cu­sa­tions emerged, and the Ru­bik’s Cube of ac­tion, re­ac­tion and suc­ces­sion con­tin­ued to puzzle the com­mon­wealth in a very un­com­mon way.

PHO­TOS BY JU­LIA RENDLEMAN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Max­amil­lian Pat­ter­son sits at the Dixie Restau­rant in Peters­burg on Fri­day. He said Gov. Ralph Northam should re­sign over the photo in his med­i­cal school year­book. “I think all of them should go.”

Cyn­thia Mas­ten, left, and Cliff Bar­rack eat at the Dixie Restau­rant. Mas­ten said the scan­dals are just dis­trac­tions: “The time they waste on this stupid stuff, they could be help­ing peo­ple who re­ally need it.”

Jackie Branch holds her grand­daugh­ter at the Dixie Restau­rant. “Ev­ery­body has a past,” she said of Northam. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll, 58 per­cent of black Vir­gini­ans say Northam shouldn’t step down.

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