The speaker of the House of Delegates, Republican Kirk Cox, would be next in line if all three statewide officials left without appointed replacements. Virginians are left reeling, both astounded and mortified by the leaders of a state that was once the center of the resistance to the civil rights movement.
We are now faced with a slew of questions:
- Is there a distinction between Northam’s blackface scandal (as a young adult, admitted and then denied) and Herring’s (in college, profusely apologized although he never brought it up before)? Charlie Cook, writing before Herring’s story broke, observed, “There is a legitimate debate over what misdeeds are the political equivalent of misdemeanors and ought to be survivable, which ones are political felonies and should be dealt with in a more punitive way, and which ones are in effect, political capital offenses. And is there a statute of limitations, or does that depend on the severity of the offense?” Northam’s case is arguably worse than Herring’s, in large part because of his lack of a consistent and credible account, but if he departs, that shouldn’t determine whether Herring should stay or go also.
- Do Republicans have any standing to weigh in on these matters? Insofar as they continue to support President Trump (who seemed to confess to sexual assault, has a long line of accusers claiming sexual assault and consistently reveals his racist and misogynist thinking) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose rampant racism was evident for years, Republicans would be well-advised to hush up.
- Do we imagine that Virginia is the only state where white males who previously appeared in blackface have been elected? Perhaps this is a far wider problem than many of us imagined, a reminder that we are only one generation away from blatant defiance of rulings to desegregate schools (which extended into the 1970s in Virginia). At a time when the GOP has normalized racism and xenophobia, we should take nothing for granted. (If you’re a politician in this category, you’d best reveal your past conduct and confess; if you are discovered by political opponents or the press, your career is likely over.) William Faulkner’s adage “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” has rarely seemed so apt.
- With a pandemic of awful behavior by male politicians, will voters begin to find white, male politicians riskier and seek safer choices among female and nonwhite candidates? The irony would be great, fair or not. The Democratic Party has the opportunity to choose its next presidential nominee from the most diverse field in history.
- Where do we go from here?
As to the last and most important query, the cases should be considered individually on the merits. While it is true that the voters overwhelmingly chose Democratic statewide candidates and serial resignations should not result in a change in party control, there are ways to avoid dropping down to fourth in line in the event all three of these officials are forced out.
Fairfax would become governor, and he would get to appoint a replacement. However, it’s unclear whether that person would be on the ballot with opponent(s) in a special election this fall to fill the two remaining years in the term, based on a 1971 precedent (the last time a vacancy in the lieutenant governorship was filled). ... However, other legal authorities believe the new appointed lieutenant governor could just serve through 2021 without need of a special election.
Of course, if Fairfax had to resign as well, he might try to ascend to the governorship first so as to name his successor and bypass Herring, who has his own problems. Perhaps if both Fairfax and Northam go, Herring ascends to the governorship, backfills both their spots and then leaves (or not). As I said, it’s complicated.
So let’s address each politician, starting with the potentially most egregious situation.
A full and swift investigation of the allegation against Fairfax ideally should be undertaken to determine whether his sexual interaction with Tyson was consensual. However, Tyson already has released a statement with considerable specificity. She also said she raised the issue with friends in October 2017, and with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). While Tyson has not been questioned either in a private setting or in public (and should be encouraged to do so), this is not a criminal inquiry, but rather a determination as to Fairfax’s political viability in a state in the midst of a political meltdown.
Fairfax’s initial reaction — lashing out at Tyson and asserting he was the victim of a political conspiracy — did not give Virginians confidence in his judgment. Unless there is some reason to believe she lied or is confused, Democrats should encourage Fairfax to go. (Rep. Jennifer Wexton has publicly said she believes Tyson.) Democrats need to do some soul-searching as to why Fairfax should be treated any differently from Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whom Democrats almost universally believed should have withdrawn from consideration.
Moving on to the governor, Northam’s career is in tatters. His ability to function in his role (e.g., appear at public events) has been severely curtailed. He will need to resign or take responsibility for essentially paralyzing the state government and becoming a serious liability to his party. (There has been talk about him becoming an independent.) He cannot serve the people of Virginia if he is a political pariah.
As for Herring, we are confronted with the logical extension of “zero tolerance.” Many Virginians, this one included, believe he would be hobbled in his work, just as Northam now is, but we feel queasy about throwing someone out of office for a single, noncriminal incident in college, about which the politician acknowledges fault and is repentant. It may be unsatisfying for those seeking an easy answer, but context matters, and each case deserves to be assessed on the facts. When Northam leaves (we hope, swiftly), Herring should present himself at a news conference and answer all questions put to him.
Many Virginians no doubt wish all three would go away, the sooner the better. We find only a single indisputable takeaway from this calamity: Politicians need to come clean and grapple with their past. Confession and apology before discovery is vastly better for all concerned than denial, discovery and prolonged public vilification.