The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On a political roll, Virginia Democrats now awash in scandal

Plagued by scandals, Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring – all Democrats – are facing calls to resign. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The Democratic Party of Virginia plunged into a full-blown political crisis Wednesday as a series of scandals tarnished the commonwealth’s three top Democratic leaders and threatened to reverse the historic gains the party has achieved in the state in recent years.

With Attorney General Mark R. Herring acknowledging that he appeared in blackface nearly 30 years ago, Democrats were unsure whether he, Gov. Ralph Northam or Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would survive separate revelations that could alienate the party’s base of support.

While the ultimate damage remains unclear, a sense of despair permeated a party that only days ago believed it was on the cusp of winning majorities in both houses of the General Assembly in the fall and cementing its control of state government for the first time in three decades.

Residents in Richmond shared their thoughts on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) days after a racist photo in his medical school yearbook page surfaced. (Video: Amber Ferguson, Dalton Bennett, Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

“This is just devastating,” said Ben Tribbett, a Fairfax-based Democratic strategist. “After a nuclear bomb goes off, it’s not always better to be a survivor. We look terrible, and everyone knows it. There’s no scenario where things get fixed. Humpty Dumpty doesn’t get put back together again.”

Herring says he donned wig, dark makeup for rapper costume in college

The nature of the controversies — two involving racially offensive imagery, the other an alleged sexual assault — seem likely to alienate African American and female voters, two of the party’s core constituencies.

“We have been carried by our base,” Tribbett said, “and you’re not going to have energy in your base with something like this going on.”

After rushing last week to call for Northam’s resignation, Democratic leaders in Washington initially withheld judgment Wednesday after Herring’s admission and a statement from Vanessa Tyson, a professor at Scripps College in California who accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004. Some officials said they needed more time to review the information, while others did not respond to requests for comment.

The silence reflected the political minefield that the party now faces in Virginia, a state that Donald Trump lost in 2016 and that is likely to be crucial for any Democratic candidate hoping to defeat the president’s expected bid for a second term. If Herring and Fairfax were to vacate their offices, as most Democratic officials have demanded of Northam, then Del. Kirk Cox, the Republican speaker of the House, would be in line to take over as governor.

The burst of disclosures has created a surreal political climate, with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a former missionary and the 2016 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, finding himself being asked by a reporter Wednesday whether he had “ever worn blackface.”

“No,” the senator replied, “I never have, never have. I grew up in Kansas City and it just wasn’t something that was done.”

Woman who accused Lt. Gov. Fairfax of assault identifies herself, gives statement

The news about Herring astonished Democrats already reeling from the revelations involving Northam and Fairfax.

“Are you friggin’ kidding me?” asked Kim Drew Wright, a founder of the grass-roots Liberal Women of Chesterfield County. The group in 2017 helped Northam win the historically conservative county outside Richmond, which had not voted for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since the early 1960s.

But Wright said that the troubles swamping the party’s top leaders would not deter her from working to elect Democrats and oppose a Republican Party led by President Trump.

“I’m not happy about it, but I’m not going to roll over and play dead,” she said.

For other Democrats, the seismic shift in the party’s political fortunes wrought uncertainty as leaders struggled to comprehend the allegations and calculate an appropriate response.

Christian Dorsey, the chair of the Arlington County Board, said the scandals concerned “three individuals,” not the Democratic Party. “It’s a really confusing time right now,” Dorsey said. “We’ve got a flurry of activity to sort out, what’s known and what’s not.”

As the new year began, Democrats in Virginia had an abundance of reasons to preen.

A trio of women who knocked off Republican incumbents would join the commonwealth’s congressional delegation. After capturing 15 House of Delegates seats in 2017, the most sweeping shift in the legislature since Reconstruction, Democrats expected to win majorities in both chambers in Richmond in November.

And the governor, a native of the Eastern Shore who was popular on both sides of the aisle, could tout a litany of first-year accomplishments, including Medicaid expansion and Amazon’s decision to bring a mother lode of jobs to Crystal City.

But in a period of less than a week, the Democrats have found themselves in the throes of a political cataclysm, halting the party’s momentum, unleashing a spasm of fighting among its leaders and renewing Republican hopes of remaining competitive in a state that seems increasingly cold to their message.

‘This isn’t me’: Northam’s defiance caught advisers off guard

Urged to resign by the Democratic establishment, Northam has refused to relinquish his seat after concluding he is not in a photo that appears on his medical school yearbook page showing someone dressed in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.

But the governor, who is term-limited, has not been able to explain why the photo is on his page. In the span of 48 hours, his reputation was severely damaged, raising concerns that he will not be able to raise money for Democratic candidates facing election this fall.

On Monday, Fairfax implied during a news conference that Northam’s allies may have been behind the leaking of allegations that he assaulted Tyson. Moments later, he insinuated that the culprit may have been Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D), a protege of former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D).

By nightfall Wednesday, Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat who defeated Republican Barbara Comstock in the fall, tweeted that she believed Fairfax’s accuser.

Democrats said it is too early to predict what will happen in November. They pointed, perhaps as a source of comfort, to scandals that did not result in parties losing power, such as when then-Gov. Mark Sanford (R) of South Carolina acknowledged an extramarital affair. Sanford completed his term, was succeeded by Republican Nikki Haley and was subsequently elected to Congress.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who has demanded Northam’s resignation, acknowledged that Democratic voters in Virginia “feel angry, embarrassed, anxious and betrayed.”

But he predicted they would still turn out in large numbers in November, as they have in recent election cycles, with the state growing increasingly blue. “These fundamentals have not changed because Ralph Northam has a problem,” Connolly said. “I say that it’s way too early to make that judgment.”

Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist based in southwestern Virginia, said the Democratic momentum is unlikely to slow as long as Trump remains the Republican standard-bearer and continues to sit in the Oval Office.

“Everyone’s in a hissy. They’re upset and nervous. But everyone needs to slow down a bit,” Saunders said. “The yellow-dog Democrats are still going to show up. They’re still enthusiastic. They still want to get rid of Trump. There’s an absolute disdain for Trump.”

The racist origins of blackface

Nevertheless, the Democrats’ implosion was a source of renewed hope for Republicans, who have not won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009.

“What was a slow-moving train wreck is now like a bullet-train wreck,” said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist and a veteran of numerous Virginia political wars. “The reports of Republicans’ demise in the commonwealth of Virginia have been greatly exaggerated.”

He said the scandals provide Republicans with an opportunity — but one they have to approach with care. “Don’t gloat. Don’t overplay your hand,” he said. “At the end of the day, voters want candidates who speak to their concerns and issues. You can’t run campaigns in the modern age based solely on the fact that a party’s top messengers have problems.”

Dan Scandling, a Republican and former aide to then-Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), said that before the scandals, Republicans were facing a “long, slow walk in the wilderness.”

Now, Scandling said, “the window of opportunity is wide-open.”

“The swing voters are going to tap the brakes now,” he said. “And the minority community is going to look at the Democrats and say: ‘Really? Have you been pulling the wool over our eyes all these years?’ ”

At the very least, the scandals may make it more challenging for Democratic candidates to claim the moral high ground compared with Trump, who has repeatedly been accused of racism and sexism over the years, said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

More problematic, he said, is the possibility that the energy that was propelling the party since Trump’s election will evaporate.

“If you’re a Democratic thinking about running against a Republican, you might be less enthusiastic,” Farnsworth said. “If you’re a donor, you might be less enthusiastic. And if you’re a suburban voter disgusted with Trump, you might be disgusted with the governor.”

Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center of Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, said the potential effect of a demoralized Democratic electorate could be offset by redistricting that could help the party “pick up five to eight seats” in the House of Delegates, which Republicans now control by a three-seat margin.

He also said that African American voters, rather than being turned off, may be more likely to vote because of the scandals. And they would be open to Democratic candidates who would more than likely “run against” Northam.

“Worst-case scenario, Northam is still there,” Kidd said. “Is there a Democrat who is going to run for a House seat and defend Northam? I don’t think so.”

State Sen. Scott A. Surovell, a Democrat who represents Fairfax, said voters choosing local candidates in November will embrace Democrats despite whatever is tainting the party’s statewide leadership.

“Those bonds trump what might be happening statewide,” he said. “People are connected to their local officials.”

As for Virginia’s Democratic Party, the senator said, “I don’t want to talk about what’s going on right now.”

Michael Scherer and Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report

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Northam’s yearbook photo and the racist origins of blackface

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