The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

The Virginia Blackface Scandal Is Only Getting Worse

Making the click-through worthwhile: You’re going to want to read this whole thing. You may have thought the scandals surrounding Virginia’s Democratic officials couldn’t have gotten worse, but . . . yeah, they’ve gotten worse. Plus, reasons why Governor Ralph Northam shouldn’t be able to even attempt the “everyone was doing it” excuse; Congressional Democrats unveil a Green New Deal that cuts out all of the details and the most wildly controversial, under-discussed aspects of earlier versions.

Virginia’s Democrats Have Become a Virtual Superfund Site on the James River

They should have set House of Cards in Richmond. To bring you up to speed . . .

Governor Ralph Northam has a college yearbook saying his nickname was “Coonman” and a medical-school yearbook that depicts on his page someone in blackface and someone in a Klan outfit. He insists that he doesn’t know how he got the nickname, that he’s not either person in the picture, that he did not select the picture, and that he had never seen the picture before — but only after stating on Friday, “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.” On Saturday, he insisted that he had been mistaken. He admitted that he did wear shoe polish as blackface on a separate occasion to imitate Michael Jackson. Almost every Democratic lawmaker in the state called for Northam’s resignation over the weekend, but there’s been only quiet murmurs of an effort to impeach him.

The man who would replace Northam if he resigned, Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax, faces an accusation of sexual assault from Vanessa Tyson, a professor at Scripps College in California. She named a specific date and offered a graphic description of the encounter in a lengthy statement. Fairfax insists the 2004 sexual encounter in a Boston hotel room was consensual. He claimed that the Washington Post declined to run an article about Tyson’s accusations because of “significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegations,”; the paper said it did not find inconsistencies but simply could not find evidence to verify or contradict her account. The National Organization for Women called on Fairfax to resign after Tyson came forward, saying, “We always believe and support survivors.”

The man who would replace Northam and Fairfax if they both resigned, Virginia attorney general Mark Herring, apologized yesterday for wearing blackface while portraying a rapper as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia in 1980. Herring said on Saturday, in response to Northam’s yearbook photo, “It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down. I have spoken with Lieutenant Governor Fairfax and assured him that, should he ascend to the governorship, he will have my complete support and commitment to ensuring his success and the success of our Commonwealth.” Herring is now in the awkward position of arguing that wearing blackface in medical school demands departure from office but wearing blackface as an undergraduate does not.

Herring stepped down as co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association on Wednesday. He now must explain why his actions warrant his resignation from that partisan political organization, but not his role as the state’s chief law enforcement officer.

And now there’s a fourth Virginia Democratic official getting ensnared in this:

Virginia Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott was made aware of allegations of sexual assault against now-Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax over a year ago by the alleged victim herself, ABC News has learned.

In a statement given to ABC News on Wednesday, Scott wrote, “Allegations of sexual assault need to be taken seriously. I have known Professor Tyson for approximately a decade and she is a friend. She deserves the opportunity to have her story heard.”

In late December 2017 and early January 2018, aides to Scott said he learned that it was Tyson herself who was involved in a “MeToo allegation,” concerning Fairfax. She also informed him that she had already told the Washington Post about an alleged incident involving Fairfax and that she had given the Post Scott’s name as a character witness.

Scott can fairly ask what he was in a position to do. He’s not a law-enforcement officer, and at that point, Tyson didn’t want her name going public. On the other hand, he’s now in a position where his longtime friend told him that the lieutenant governor had assaulted her and he did . . . nothing, really.

One irony about all three top Virginia elected officials facing a career-threatening scandal simultaneously is that it makes it more likely that all three survive the political maelstrom. If wearing blackface as a younger man is serious enough to drive Northam from office, it’s hard to understand why it should be acceptable in the state’s attorney general, and if blackface is sufficient reason to remove a lawmaker from office, it raises the question of whether a detailed accusation of sexual assault from a woman with no discernable political motivation shouldn’t be as well.

Virginia politics is now something of a political suicide pact or Mexican standoff. In order to ensure Virginia House speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican, doesn’t become the next governor, Democrats must keep at least one of them, which means all three will probably survive.

One under-discussed aspect of these revelations is that for once, we know that it’s unlikely that they’re being leaked by Republicans; if the GOP had this information, they would have used it during the 2017 campaigns. No, what’s much more likely is that Northam, Fairfax, and Herring or allies of the three men are leaking them against each other. Virginia’s term limit for governors means that the state is never more than four years away from an open seat and, considering the state’s rapidly changing demographics, if you win the Democratic nomination, the odds are no worse than 50-50 that you win. There are a lot of ambitious Virginia Democrats with sharp elbows.

For what it is worth, Virginia Republicans are telling me that they are hearing all kinds of secondhand claims of additional scandals, additional accusers, and additional embarrassing photos involving the state’s top Democrats. Those claims are, so far, unverified. I said to one, “There’s always another shoe to drop.” He responded, “Just how many feet do they have?”

Just How Racist Was Virginia in the 1980s?

One of the arguments you may hear in coming days is some variation of a “They all do it” excuse or explanation: “What do you expect? Virginia was always a really racist state.”

There’s no getting around the fact that for a long, long stretch, the legal, political, and cultural treatment of African-Americans in Virginia was appalling: The legacy of slavery; from June 1861 to April 1865 Richmond was capital of the Confederacy; no African-Americans were elected to the Virginia General Assembly from 1890 to 1968; counties instituted poll taxes and literacy tests; Davis v. Prince Edward County was one of five school segregation lawsuits folded into the case that became Brown v. Board of Education; for four decades the state’s politics were shaped by vehement segregationist Harry F. Byrd Sr. and the Byrd Organization; the state saw “Massive Resistance” to school desegregation, including Prince Edward County’s decision to close all public schools for five years rather than desegregate!

But by the time Ralph Northam and Mark Herring were heading off to college in the early to mid-1980s, the civil-rights movement had swept in changes, and the state saw some significant signs of progress. Fredericksburg and Roanoke elected black mayors in 1976 and by the next year, the majority of Richmond’s city-council members were black. By 1985, there were seven black members of the general assembly.

How common was blackface in the 1980s? Amos and Andy had been off the air for decades, and in most corners, Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer had been long forgotten. But white actors wearing blackface for comedic purposes continued to pop up here and there. The 1983 film Trading Places had Dan Ackroyd in blackface and dreadlocks in one scene; comedian Billy Crystal wore dark makeup to impersonate Sammy Davis Jr.; the 1986 film Soul Man featured it as part of the plot. (Ted Danson wore blackface at the 1993 Friar’s Club Roast, and more recently, Robert Downey Jr. played an Australian actor playing an African-American character in the comedy Tropic Thunder.) Clearly, some white people and some white audiences thought it was funny.

Still, it wasn’t that long after Northam and Herring were wearing blackface that Doug Wilder was (narrowly) elected governor in 1989, becoming the first African-American governor in U.S. history. Rep. Scott was elected to the U.S. House in 1992. By 1984, Bryant Gumbel was anchoring the Today Show, Vanessa Williams was Miss America, Martin Luther King Day was a federal holiday, The Color Purple had won the Pulitzer Prize, Jesse Jackson had won more than 3 million votes in the Democratic presidential primary, and The Cosby Show had debuted. White America’s attitudes towards African-Americans had changed pretty dramatically from just a decade or two earlier, making any “Oh, everyone was doing it back then” excuse from Northam unconvincing.

The Suddenly Quickly Edited, Vaguer, More Politically Safe ‘Green New Deal’

This morning Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey introduced “a  framework” for the Green New Deal. It is essentially a press release in legislative form, listing goals but offering no specifics on how to achieve them.

Still, the Democratic lawmakers have taken out references to the most controversial aspects of the Green New Deal as laid out by the Green Party earlier: cutting the U.S. military budget in half, withdrawing all U.S. forces from overseas, banning all internal-combustion engine cars, and letting the government decide who is allowed to own a car.

Funny how Democrats don’t want to talk about those proposals!

ADDENDUM: Over on NRO’s home page, twenty things you didn’t know about Cory Booker. If you’re a conservative, you probably would have loved the year 2000 edition of Booker — pro-school voucher, furiously denouncing unresponsive and failed government bureaucracies, and adopting Giuliani-era tactics against crime. But that Booker is long gone.

Valentine’s Day is just a week away. If you’re the kind of person who gets in trouble for forgetting it, start thinking of a gift or evening plans now.

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