We will note at the outset of this article that it is not the case that the entire Democratic leadership in the state of Virginia is about to step aside. Mass resignations that result in the sudden elevation of third-tier staffers to prominent positions are nearly unheard of in U.S. politics, and there’s nothing to suggest that it’s about to happen in Virginia.
But if it were to happen anywhere at any time, Virginia now seems like a decent contender.
It began with Gov. Ralph Northam (D). Late last week, an old yearbook photo of Northam was reported on by conservative site Big League Politics. In that photo, two people are shown, one dressed in blackface and the other in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. The immediate aftermath of the photo’s release was rampant speculation about Northam’s future, speculation that is unresolved. Northam’s support from Democrats in the state evaporated after the photo emerged, but he seems to be focused on remaining in his position.
It’s worth noting, as our Dave Weigel did on Twitter, that the photo apparently surfaced only because of Northam’s comments about abortion in response to an ill-fated legislative proposal made by a state delegate. Those comments reportedly prompted a former classmate of his to release the photo to the conservative site.
With Northam under fire, attention turned to Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax (D), who would assume the governor’s seat if Northam resigned. Fairfax earned praise from Democrats last month for taking a principled stand against a ceremonial recognition of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
But with the spotlight bearing down on him, allegations of a sexual assault by Fairfax emerged. Fairfax quickly denied the allegation, which involved an incident in 2004. The state Democratic Party, though, released a statement on Tuesday indicating that the allegation, like all allegations, should be “taken with profound gravity” and that it was “evaluating” the allegation against Fairfax.
Suddenly, Virginians were looking at a weird situation: What if neither of the two primary constitutional officers in the state were fit to hold the top job? Attention then turned to the person who’s second in line in the chain of succession to the governor’s job, state Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D).
On Wednesday morning, rumors started to swirl after Herring held a closed-door meeting with members of the Legislative Black Caucus. In short order, he released a statement: During a college party in 1980, he and some friends dressed as popular rappers, including having “put on wigs and brown makeup.”
This is different from Northam’s yearbook photo certainly — but almost identical to what Northam admitted during a bizarre news conference over the weekend. In 1984, he said, he attended a dance contest in San Antonio in which he dressed as Michael Jackson, coloring his face with shoe polish.
With Herring facing new scrutiny, even close observers of Virginia politics were suddenly at a loss: If Northam, Fairfax and Herring are out of the picture, who’s next?
Happily, the state’s constitution is clear on this. Third in line to the governorship is the speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox (R). Note that (R)! Should the three Democrats step aside, Virginia would suddenly have a Republican governor.
But only because of a coin toss.
You may remember that the 2017 state elections in Virginia were the front edge of the blue wave that eventually washed over the House of Representatives. Democrats overperformed in the state, taking even seats that were considered to be fairly safe for Republicans. At the end of the night on Election Day, it wasn’t clear which party would control the chamber.
Ultimately, it came down to one seat, Virginia’s 94th District, where Democrat Shelly Simonds emerged from a recount with a one-vote margin over the incumbent Del. David E. Yancey (R). It was so close that state Republicans at one point congratulated Simonds on her victory.
But it didn’t last. A panel of judges determined that a vote that had been discarded should be given to Yancey, resulting in a tie. How to resolve the tie? By drawing names from a ceramic bowl. Both names were placed in the bowl, Yancey’s was picked, and Republicans retained control of the chamber.
And Cox got to be speaker.
And now Cox is third in line to the governorship.
If something were to cast a pall over Cox’s fitness for the office — which, given the past several days, would surprise no one — there is no fifth in line. The House of Delegates would vote on a replacement, and, given the composition of that body, it would probably be a Republican.
Hopefully someone who never thought it was a great idea to dress in blackface.