A Brief Rundown of Virginia’s Gubernatorial Shakeup

To Virginian legislators, the past several days has had brought enough turmoil to last an entire term. With a slew of troubling revelations tied to top three legislators in the executive branch — Governor Ralph Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring, all Democrats — the possibility of resignation weighs heavily on at least one of the leaders, if not all three. The Virginia governor line of succession would open the seat to Fairfax; then Herring, if Fairfax were to step down; and ultimately Virginia Speaker of the House Kirk Cox if all three men choose to tender their resignations.

Here’s a rundown of this past week’s revelations and allegations, encompassing acts of racism and sexual assault:

Undeniably Racist Photo from Governor Ralph Northam’s Yearbook Page Surfaces

On Friday, the right-wing blog Big League Politics leaked a photo of Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook page in which he included a photo of two individuals wearing racist costumes, including what appears to be a light-skinned man in blackface and another person dressed up in KKK garb. Initially, Northam admitted that the man in blackface was him; he rescinded the admission a day later, fumbling through his explanation that he had only recalled putting on “a little bit of shoe polish” for a Michael Jackson dance contest. “[The] reason I used a very little bit is because I don’t know if anybody’s ever tried that but you cannot get shoe polish off.”

Unfortunately, there’s a long and well-documented history of people wearing shoe polish and other pigments on their faces for minstrel-type shows. Frederick Douglass wrote that blackface performers “have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature … to make money and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens.” Northam costuming up in blackface to perform a Moonwalk did exactly that.

The governor has yet to resign, despite calls from his Democratic peers to step down. Among the public, there are plenty of people out there who aren’t listening to the POC community in this conversation, offering their support for Northam because A. Why is blackface racist? B. He’s done good things since then. and C. What about Trump et al.? Frankly, these are all beside the point in whether or not Northam ought to resign.

Reverend Jesse Jackson penned his take in the Chicago Sun-Times, acknowledging that redemption is possible for individuals who atone, citing Northam’s political and social track record in recent years, contrasting the governor’s actions to racist acts and statements tied to GOP figures.

However, Jackson was unequivocal in urging Northam to resign. “As a practical matter, it will be impossible for Northam to lead the state of Virginia after this revelation,” he wrote in his column. “Our leaders must represent the values that we espouse and honor the diversity of the coalition that we seek to build. Virtually the entire leadership of the Democratic Party in the state has called on the governor to resign. He would be wise to accept their advice.”

For (white) people who need a little more reassurance that Northam’s resignation would be the appropriate course of action, Michael Harriot wrote a piece for The Root that shifts the focus away from whether or not Northam is racist and back to the more relevant consequence of racism itself. “Ralph Northam did a racist thing. He might not have done it because he hates black people. He might not have even thought about it. It doesn’t matter what’s in his heart. It’s his actions that matter.”

Sexual Assault Allegations Leveled Against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax

The weekend hardly over, the same conservative site leaked a private Facebook post written by Vanessa Tyson that alleged that Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax had sexually assaulted her in 2004, forcing her to perform non-consensual oral sex on him.

Fairfax has admitted to having a sexual encounter with her, but has insisted that it was entirely consensual. Initially, he characterized the timing of the release as a smear that may have been orchestrated by Governor Northam’s supporters, though there is no evidence yet to indicate who leaked the Facebook post to Big League Politics. Tyson had initially reached out to the Washington Post a year before Fairfax’s election with the allegations of sexual assault, but the story could not be published without corroborating evidence.

Tyson has since obtained legal counsel from the same firm that represented Dr. Chrstine Blassey Ford and issued a statement on Wednesday to publicly state her position. She insisted that her encounter with Fairfax was an assault: “I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual.” She also clarified what on the surface seems like suspicious timing, insisting that the last thing she wanted to do was get involved in a divisive political moment. “I have no political motive. I am a proud Democrat.”

Fairfax also issued a statement on Wednesday, reiterating his denial of sexual assault while acknowledging that “no one makes charges of this kind lightly, and I take it and this situation very seriously.”

Voluntary Admission of Blackface by Attorney General Mark Herring

Attorney General Mark Herring met with black legislators on Wednesday to admit, perhaps ahead of any further revelations, that he too had worn blackface as a young man. “Because of our ignorance and glib attitudes — and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others — we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup,” he said in a statement.

He did not go so far to denounce his own act as racist, and instead included a paragraph recounting his efforts to eradicate systemic racism. Herring did not say whether or not he would resign but suggested that he would be listening to “honest conversations and discussions” in the days to come.

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