The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia’s black lawmakers struggle with painful questions as scandals unfold around race and sex

Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond), a minister, has urged Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to take the scandal surrounding his use of blackface and a racist yearbook photo as an opportunity to address inequities between black and white Virginians. (Timothy C. Wright for The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Del. Lashrecse D. Aird faces an awful dilemma.

The Petersburg Democrat and other members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus have called for the resignations of Gov. Ralph Northam (D), whom many had worked to elect, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), only the second African American to win statewide office in Virginia’s history.

But constituents have been telling Aird they don’t want either man to step down. That Northam deserves a chance to redeem himself for a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook, and that Fairfax should be able to defend himself against allegations of sexual assault.

Other black lawmakers have gotten the same message; a Washington Post-Schar School poll last week found that 58 percent of African American Virginians support Northam staying in office.

Virginians are split on governor’s fate amid blackface scandal, poll shows

“My constituents are the 58 percent,” Aird said. “It’s a real problem for me.”

Members of the Black Caucus have resisted speaking out individually as the melodrama has unfolded, conscious of the nation watching every embarrassing development in Richmond. But on Tuesday, a few agreed to share some of the conflicting feelings all have struggled to resolve.

“We are being asked to speak not just for every black person in this state but really every black person in this country, and this is a heavy burden. Black people are not monolithic,” said one lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the topic has been so incendiary within the caucus.

Francis L. Counselman, a former medical school classmate of Ralph Northam, reacted Feb. 6 to the yearbook photo controversy plaguing the Virginia governor. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

As the crisis wears on, some of the lawmakers say they feel torn. Several members of the Black Caucus have met privately with Northam, and he cited their lessons on white privilege and the painful history of blackface as key elements in his decision to stay in office and seek racial healing.

Caught between a desire to clean house and the potential for using the situation to press Northam for tangible changes to state policy that would help African Americans, the lawmakers went into this week looking for the first real test of Northam’s promise to seek redemption.

And, in their eyes, the governor failed the test.

Richmond may seem to be in chaos, but Virginia lawmakers just reached a bipartisan deal on taxes

A major tax-cut deal worked out last week by the Northam administration and Republicans who control the General Assembly eliminated an earlier effort by the governor to expand tax relief for low-income families. Budget agreements decreased funding for a host of items related to the poor, and cuts were worse in parts of the state with a higher proportion of minority residents.

“We are selling out the people who need us the most, and I have a problem with that,” Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) said during floor debate on the tax deal.

She and other black lawmakers voted against it, taking Democratic leaders by surprise. In the end, the Black Caucus met with Republicans and won agreements to put money back into some of those budget areas in return for supporting the tax plan.

But it was messy, and the agreements are just promises. And it was unclear whether Republicans were able to scuttle Northam’s original budget proposal because he was weakened by scandal. The black lawmakers say they are looking for signs that Northam — and, to a lesser extent, Fairfax — can continue to govern and get things done.

“Just to let folks know, I’m still watching,” Del. Marcia S. “Cia” Price (D-Newport News) said after Monday’s tax votes. She’s a member of the Black Caucus and served as campaign chair when Northam ran for governor in 2017, but she has called for him to resign. “I’m still looking for true reforms that impact working families.”

A surprising reaction from the after-church crowd

On Sunday in Petersburg, Aird, 32, hung around after church to talk with her constituents about the scandals in nearby Richmond.

The conversation didn’t go as she expected.

Young and old, the fellow worshipers — all African American — told her that Northam and Fairfax deserve to stay in office, she said. They felt both men had been doing a good job.

Aird said she responded by telling the churchgoers that her first concern is whether both men can still be effective in office while wounded.

“It’s about governing,” she said.

She mentioned the budget bills and her fear that Northam backed off his tax cut for the poor because he’s in a weak position. The churchgoers “said they understood, and they appreciated me taking the time to talk with them,” Aird said. “But their positions did not move.”

Northam’s words over the weekend in interviews, in which he pledged to work to fix racial inequities, gave Aird “a lot to digest,” she said. She still wants Northam to resign, but as time goes on, that seems unlikely. “So we need to think about our expectations, because every day I get the sense people are moving beyond the divisions that have been displayed,” she said.

Northam says he wants to focus the rest of his term on racial equity

Del. Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones (D-Norfolk), who at 29 is one of the youngest members of the Black Caucus, had similar experiences over the weekend. At a function on Saturday night, he said, a woman grabbed him by the shirt and told him Northam, Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) should not step down. Like Northam, Herring has admitted darkening his face as part of a costume, in his case to imitate a rapper when he was 19.

Northam used to represent Jones’s area in the state Senate, and his medical practice is located there. He went to Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, and it was that yearbook that surfaced on Feb. 1 with a photo on Northam’s page depicting someone in blackface and someone in a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam initially took responsibility for the picture but now says it’s not him — though he admits putting shoe polish on his face to play Michael Jackson in a dance contest that same year.

“When I go home, people love him,” Jones said. “The guy who they know, who’s been in public life for a decade — that’s not the person in that picture.”

Jones said Northam was the first person he ever voted for, and the yearbook image and the notion that he wore blackface have been difficult for him. “There’s pain, there’s anger, there’s angst, there’s anguish,” he said.

Like Aird, he said the tax and budget bills have not been a good first step in proving that the governor has learned a lesson. “All this is something where we’re going to have to figure out how to do it going forward,” Jones said. “We’re all going home in a couple of weeks” — the General Assembly session ends Feb. 23 — “and we’re all facing elections this fall.”

Democrats had high hopes of winning control of the General Assembly in November, and the cascading disasters have sent state and national party leaders into hand-wringing overdrive.

Strategists worry that leaving the three top Democrats in office, each man damaged, will only help Republicans. Northam’s diminished status wrecks his ability to raise money for state Democrats who will launch into fundraising mode in earnest by the end of this month. Democratic 2020 hopefuls looking to attack what they call the racist and sexist attitudes of President Trump are dreading having to answer for the trio of albatrosses in Virginia, an important state in a presidential year. Meanwhile, Fairfax and Herring had both nurtured hopes of running for governor in 2021, but it is unclear whether either can launch a viable campaign.

Still, it’s possible some of those fears are exaggerated. “Out of the 40 doors that I knocked this weekend, I think maybe three people brought up” the scandals, said Del. Hala S. Ayala (D-Prince William), a freshman lawmaker and member of the Black Caucus. “Most of them were just talking about the [federal] government shutdown.”

She has debated Northam’s fate with friends and family, Ayala said. She called for the governor to resign but acknowledged that “there’s this real conflict. There’s this gray area. . . . You say your piece, you tell them your stance, and then you continue on.”

Ayala said she’s encouraged by Northam’s promise to educate himself and to use this moment to heal. And that’s at least partly because Northam is taking cues from Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond), a minister and one of the most senior members of the Black Caucus.

McQuinn met with Northam the night of Feb. 1 when the racist photo came to light. At that point, he had taken responsibility for the picture, and later that night, the Black Caucus would issue its first call for him to resign.

Northam admits he was in 1984 yearbook photo showing figures in blackface, KKK hood

But not every member of the caucus saw the moment as hopeless.

“Let me tell you what I said the very first night, even in the midst of the anger and hurt and disappointment,” said McQuinn, who is prominent in the Richmond area for her efforts to preserve African American history. “I said to him that he had to answer the question: Is this a time to retreat, or is it a time to teach?”

It would be easy, she told Northam, to run away from the world. But she admonished him that “this is a teachable moment for Virginians; this is a teachable moment for all of us.”

In her years of promoting memorials to black history and preserving black cemeteries, McQuinn said, she never felt the white community had stepped up to fully express “the injustices, the inequity and inequality. How barriers and walls were erected to hold African Americans down — from enslavement to Jim Crow to massive resistance.”

White leaders, she told Northam, need to realize “that the systemic and structural racism still exists. We’ve got to dismantle it.”

Northam has announced plans to speak about race at Virginia Union University next week as part of a statewide reconciliation tour. On Tuesday, his staff touted that Northam has restored voting rights to 10,000 felons, who are disproportionately African American.

For all the shame that Northam and Herring face over the revelations, McQuinn said, they have an opportunity. “Ralph and Mark have been placed in a position that they can make something good come out of this. It is no coincidence . . . that the governor of the former capital of the Confederacy is now on the international stage, over this issue. That’s no coincidence, okay? Make no mistake. He can take this and use it as a teachable moment.”

It is possible, she said she told Northam, to move toward “the whole issue of apology, forgiveness, reconciliation. It’s going to take some time. It’s not going to happen over night. But he needs to find those places that he can go and begin to erect change.”

Fenit Nirappil and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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