The First Baptist Church of Vienna’s Justice and Legislative Sunday service was intended to give its congregation an opportunity to meet their political representatives and local advocacy organizations.
The historically black church could not have anticipated that its modest community gathering would fall a mere two days after a photo from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook featuring men in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan uniform surfaced, triggering a scandal that has snowballed into possibly the most politically volatile week in recent state history.
When First Baptist Church Senior Pastor Dr. Vernon Walton took the pulpit on Feb. 3, sexual assault allegations against Northam’s potential successor, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, had not yet become public, and Attorney General Mark Herring had not yet admitted to wearing blackface at a party as a college undergraduate student in 1980.
At that time, Fairfax County residents and the elected officials who represent them were still reeling from the discovery of the photo on Northam’s yearbook page and the whiplash of the governor’s initial apology and subsequent denial of involvement in the picture during a press conference on Feb. 2 that also saw him confess to using blackface at a dance party in 1984.
“It’s hard to believe that we’re grappling with the issues we are today,” Walton said in a sermon on how faith and politics intersect. “…You would think that, after all we have been through, there would be extreme sensitivity to issues of race…Yet in 2019, we find ourselves faced with the reality that people are still judged by the color of their skin.”
Afterward, Walton said that he was extremely disappointed by everything that Virginians had learned about their governor over the past two days.
“This is beyond party politics,” Walton said. “At this moment, the longer he remains, the more our government will be in stalemate. We’ll be distracted instead of focusing on the real issues.”
This past week was the busiest of the General Assembly’s 2019 session as House and Senate lawmakers hurried to pass hundreds of bills on Monday and Tuesday so that they could cross over from one chamber to the other.
Walton says he hopes to see more work done on affordable housing and workforce development in Northern Virginia.
For Del. Mark Keam (D-35th) and State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34th), whose jurisdictions include the Town of Vienna, the most pressing concern for the upcoming week was the need to adopt legislation conforming Virginia’s tax laws to the federal tax code, which was altered by a tax reform bill signed by President Donald Trump in 2017 that increased standard deductions and limited itemized deductions.
Like the Virginia House Democratic Caucus as a whole, Keam first called for Northam to resign as governor on Feb. 1, and he said on Feb. 3 that he would work with his colleagues to examine the legal possibilities for removing Northam if the governor does not step down on his own.
When contacted by the Fairfax County Times on Wednesday, Keam said he still stood by his belief that the governor can no longer serve in Virginia’s highest office effectively, though he did not make a public statement on the Fairfax allegation by press time and declined to comment on Herring’s admission.
“It’s not about whether I forgive [Northam] or not,” Keam said. “The question to me is: is he going to be an effective chief executive of Virginia for the next two and a half years? Can he execute the job that he has now as the only person in charge of all 8.5 million people? I don’t think he can.”
Petersen, one of the few Democrats in the General Assembly not openly pushing Northam to resign, says he was stunned by the governor’s yearbook photo but does not want to rush to judgment.
“I was in high school in 1984, and that was not acceptable at that time, but again, he says it’s not him in the photograph,” Petersen said. “I don’t know how it got in the yearbook. I don’t know what the back story is, so to me personally, I need to know more.”
For Jasmine Jones, the revelations about Northam felt like a personal betrayal.
Now the director of alumni support for the Virginia Progressive Leadership Project, Jones has served as a campaign operative and volunteer on election campaigns for Northam.
“I feel like it was a slap in the face of the work that we’ve done to get him elected,” Jones said. “…You work hard and campaign to elect people who are going to give us their word – and your word is your bond – and who really want to support us.”
Still, Jones’s loss of trust in Northam has not changed her commitment to VAPLP’s mission to train and develop progressive leaders.
“We’re looking for different ways to move Virginia forward for the future, and that’s very important,” Jones said. “In the time we’re living in now, we need to prepare for what the future holds.”