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 vehement 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 Post-Schar 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 photograph suddenly morphed into a confusing denial. The governor claimed he was not one of the people in the yearbook photo but said that 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, despite the wave of demands for Northam to step down, 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, who said he has not heard from residents about the controversy, 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 backward-looking. 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 low-rise senior-living apartment where Trisha Storey was smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk. The 68-year-old 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, hip and friendly in long dreadlocks, is part of a promising youth wave giving the ancient brick downtown a faint neon pulse of cafes, coffee shops, bars and loft apartments. He 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 now represents Colonial Heights, the community 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 what he called 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.