For more than two weeks, Virginia has been embroiled in a scandal that seems like it will never end.
A photo of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School emerged on Friday, February 1. On Governor Northam’s page of the yearbook, two men are seen at what seems like a Halloween party: one in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
Initially, Governor Northam, elected in 2017 as a Democrat, acknowledged that he was one of the men in the photo but couldn’t remember if he was the one in blackface or the one in the Klan hood. He then backtracked and said, upon recollection, he was not in the photo in the yearbook but had dressed in blackface in college to dress like Michael Jackson.
Democrats and Republicans alike both immediately called for Governor Northam to resign. He has held out against those calls so far, telling CBS’ Gayle King “Right now, Virginia needs someone that can heal. There’s no better person to do that than a doctor. Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere.”
At a press conference to address the photo, Governor Northam told the press that he used “just a little bit of shoe polish” and won the Michael Jackson costume contest because he learned to moonwalk. A reporter asked if he still knew how to moonwalk, which Northam seemed to consider doing until his wife said it would be inappropriate.
Governor Northam’s undergraduate yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute included a racist nickname under his picture: Coonman.
Beyond the optics of removing someone with a racist past as governor, Virginia Democrats had another reason to want to remove Northam from the Governor’s Mansion. The Commonwealth’s Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, had been hailed as a rising star in the Democratic Party for years and is more progressive in his politics than Northam. Lieutenant Governor Fairfax assuming office midway through the term would also exempt him from Virginia’s four-year term limit for Governors, meaning Democrats and Fairfax could control the Governor’s Office until 2026.
As the calls for Governor Northam to step aside in favor of Lieutenant Governor Fairfax reached a peak, news broke about Fairfax that threw cold water on that plan. Vanessa Tyson, a professor at Scripps College, accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004 when they both attended that year’s Democratic National Convention in Boston. Fairfax denied the claim and said that their relationship was consensual. Tyson responded that the encounter began as consensual kissing but ended with non-consensual oral sex.
A second woman, Meredith Watson, has also come forward since Tyson went public, alleging that Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2000 when they were both undergraduates at Duke. Lieutenant Governor Fairfax has hired the same legal firm that represented now-Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing against the claims of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Many members of the Virginia Democratic Party, including Senator Tim Kaine and former Governor Terry McAuliffe, have called on Fairfax to resign.
If both Governor Northam and Lieutenant Governor Fairfax were to resign, the next in line to the Governor’s Mansion would be Attorney General Mark Herring. The attorney general, however, is facing a racial scandal of his own. He admitted in an interview that he wore blackface and an insensitive wig in 1980 to appear like a rapper at a college party. Before admitting to his own racial incident, Herring had been one of the most vocal voices calling for Northam to resign. It is unclear if there is a photo of Attorney General Herring in the outfit circulating.
The fourth, and final, person in the line of succession to become the Governor of Virginia is Kirk Cox. Cox is the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. Unlike Northam, Fairfax, and Herring, Speaker Cox is a conservative Republican. Cox has called on all three embattled Democrats to resign.
The Virginia Republican Party has not been spared from this outbreak in revelations of racism: Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment was involved with a 1968 college publication containing slurs and blackface photos.
Now, the Democratic Party is faced with the question of whether or not they believe all three Democrats in the line of succession need to step down, giving the Governor’s Mansion to the Republicans, or if Attorney General Mark Herring may be worthy of forgiveness.