Virginia’s state government remains in turmoil one week after a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page surfaced online and threw the future of the state’s political leadership into question.
The photo depicted two people, one in blackface, the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe, and was featured on a page that Northam had in the Eastern Virginia Medical School’s 1984 yearbook.
Northam initially apologized for appearing in the yearbook photo before backtracking in a press conference on Feb. 2 and saying that he was not in the picture, though he admitted to donning blackface for a 1984 dance contest where he says he dressed up as the singer Michael Jackson.
The photo and Northam’s efforts to explain it drew quick condemnation from both sides of the aisle, as state and federal lawmakers, including members of Northam’s own party, called for the governor’s resignation or removal from office.
However, state legislators’ plans to find a way for Northam to step aside in favor of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax were complicated on Feb. 3 when a conservative news site publicized a sexual assault allegation against Fairfax, who has denied the claim.
Big League Politics, a far-right media site founded by former Breitbart News writer Patrick Howley, was also responsible for unearthing Northam’s yearbook page based on a tip from a “concerned citizen” angry about comments the governor made on Jan. 30 in defense of a House bill eliminating some restrictions around abortions, according to the Associated Press.
On a more local note, Big League Politics on Feb. 7 released a 2014 Facebook post by 86th District Democratic hopeful Ibraheem Samirah in which Samirah is agreeing with musician Brian Eno of Roxy Music that “Funding Israel is like sending money to the KKK” and other things that could potentially be interpreted as anti-Semitic.
On Feb. 8, Samirah responded by saying "...this slander campaign is using 5-year-old Facebook posts from my impassioned college days, posts that upon reflection and with the of blessing of time, I sincerely regret and apologize for." A special election for the 86th District delegate race, recently vacated by Democrat Jennifer Boysko, will be held Feb. 19.
The Washington Post revealed on Feb. 4 that it had been approached after Justin Fairfax was elected as lieutenant governor in 2017 by a woman who said he forced her to perform oral sex when they met at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
The newspaper says it did not run a story on the woman’s allegations at the time, because it was unable to corroborate her account and did not find any other complaints of sexual misconduct involving Fairfax.
Fairfax called the allegation “defamatory and false” in a statement released by his office on Feb. 4. In a second statement put out on Wednesday, he described the encounter in question as consensual and said the woman had never expressed discomfort or concern to him during or after their meeting.
“I wish her no harm or humiliation, nor do I seek to denigrate her or diminish her voice,” Fairfax said. “But I cannot agree with a description of events that I know is not true.”
The woman publicly identified herself as Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor of politics at Scripps College in California, on Wednesday when NBC News reported that she had hired the same legal team used by Stanford University psychologist Christine Blasey Ford, who testified to the Senate in September that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her.
“Since October 2017 when I first began telling friends about the assault, I have never wavered in my account because I am telling the truth,” Tyson said Wednesday in her first public statement. “…My only motive in speaking now is to refute Mr. Fairfax’s falsehoods and aspersions of my character, and to provide what I believe is important information for Virginians to have as they make critical decisions that involve Mr. Fairfax.”
Compared to the swift calls for Northam’s resignation last weekend, the response to the sexual assault claim against Fairfax has been more hesitant with legislators largely declining to comment. Newly-elected Virginia Delegate Jennifer Wexton (D-10th District) however, tweeted “I believe Dr. Vanessa Tyson.” on Feb. 6.
“The facts here are still being determined,” the General Assembly’s Democratic caucuses said on Tuesday in a joint statement on the allegation against Fairfax. “Every individual deserves the opportunity to be heard, and we respect anyone who comes forward to share their story.”
The Virginia House and Senate Republican Caucuses had not released any statements regarding Fairfax by press time.
Virginians barely had time to digest the possibility that Fairfax had sexually assaulted a woman before the Commonwealth’s third statewide officeholder, Attorney General Mark Herring, made a somewhat queasy admission of his own.
In a statement released on Wednesday, Herring revealed that put on brown makeup and wigs to dress up as a rapper at a college party in 1980.
“This was a onetime occurrence and I accept full responsibility for my conduct,” Herring said. “That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others. It was really a minimization of both people of color, and…of a horrific history I knew well even then.”
While Herring says he is prepared for “honest conversations and discussions” that will determine whether he “can or should continue to serve as attorney general,” both Northam and Fairfax have stated that they intend to remain in their current positions.
Under the Constitution of Virginia, the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general may be impeached by the House of Delegates and prosecuted before the State Senate for “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor.”
A conviction requires the approval of two-thirds of the senators present and would lead to removal from office as well as a ban on holding any public office in the Commonwealth.
Elected officers can also be removed from office “for neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties when that…has a material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office” by a petition signed by registered voters and filed in a circuit court.
Given that all three incidents took place prior to their election to their current offices, it is unclear whether the Constitution would allow for Northam, Fairfax, and Herring’s removals.
The Constitution is more clear-cut when it comes to the line of succession to the governor’s office. If the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general all vacate their offices, the speaker of the House of Delegates would ascend to the office of the governor.
The current House speaker is Del. Kirk Cox, a Republican representing the 66th House District.
“The last seven days have been tumultuous for our Commonwealth. The revelations against and admissions by the leaders of the executive branch are disturbing, Cox said in a release. “The allegations of sexual assault against Lt. Governor Fairfax are extremely serious. The Lt. Governor, the alleged victim, and Virginians all deserve a full airing of the facts.”