As Goes Virginia, So Goes the Democratic Party

Attorney General Mark Herring’s acknowledgment that he once wore blackface in college deepens the crisis in the Old Dominion.

Mark Herring, Ralph Northam, and Justin Fairfax
Mark Herring, Ralph Northam, and Justin Fairfax prepare for their inauguration in January 2018. (Steve Helber / AP)

Updated at 5:17 p.m. ET on February 6, 2019

As the day broke on Wednesday, it seemed hard to believe that the Virginia Democratic Party’s spree of scandal could get any weirder and bleaker. Governor Ralph Northam is under fire for wearing blackface, and for a bizarre yearbook photo that shows a man in blackface and another in a Klan hood. (Northam denies he is either.) Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who will succeed Northam if he resigns, is now the subject of a sexual-assault accusation.

Then the Democrats’ septem horribilis got more horrible. Attorney General Mark Herring, who is second in line for the governor’s seat behind Fairfax, acknowledged late Wednesday morning that he wore blackface at a party in college in 1980, when he was 19. In a statement, Herring said he’d dressed up as the rapper Kurtis Blow and performed a song.

“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,” Herring said. He said that the incident occurred only once and that he had often thought about the error in judgment over the years and worried that it would cause problems as he moved forward in politics.

“Although the shame of that moment has haunted me for decades, and though my disclosure of it now pains me immensely, what I am feeling in no way compares to the betrayal, the shock, and the deep pain that Virginians of color may be feeling,” he said. Herring did not announce plans to resign, but said that conversations in the coming days would indicate whether he could or should remain in his post.

Even without Herring stepping down, the bombshell throws the Democratic Party, and Virginia’s government, even further into disarray. The controversy began when Virginia lawmakers considered, and Northam defended, a late-term-abortion bill. A disgruntled tipster led a conservative blogger to publish Northam’s medical-school yearbook photo on Friday. The governor has faced almost unanimous calls to step down, including from the state Democratic Party, the Democratic caucus in the legislature, and the Democratic National Committee, but has thus far refused. The Washington Post reports that Northam, who voted twice for President George W. Bush, might leave the Democratic Party in an attempt to keep his job.* After initially acknowledging and apologizing for the photo, Northam backtracked, saying he did not believe he was either man—but he did not explain why the photo appears on his personal page in a medical-school yearbook. He also said he had dressed up in blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume on another occasion.

Fairfax, a young African American politician, had been seen as an attractive replacement for Northam, especially given the circumstances, until the accusation of sexual assault emerged. Fairfax has emphatically denied any wrongdoing and says he had a consensual sexual encounter with his accuser, Vanessa Tyson, a professor of politics at Scripps College. (He has also accused Levar Stoney, a rival Democrat who is mayor of Richmond, of spreading the story. Stoney denies doing so.) This week, Tyson hired the same law firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her in high school. Fairfax has also refused to resign.

But in today’s Democratic Party, which puts racial justice and women’s equality front and center, and depends on the votes of women and minorities to succeed, it’s difficult to imagine either man having much of a political future. That turned attention to Herring—and from there led to Herring’s acknowledgment Wednesday, which seemed to be an attempt to prevent an embarrassing revelation from emerging somewhere else.

With all three men’s political futures in flux, it’s impossible to predict who might be left standing as the scandal progresses and who will end up in the governor’s office. But to state the obvious, the scandals are a huge problem for the Democratic Party of Virginia. The state has tilted to the left in recent years, electing two Democratic governors in a row and voting for Democrats in each of the past three presidential elections; the fact that the state’s top three elected officials are Democrats shows their growth, though Republicans hold a one-seat advantage in both chambers of the General Assembly. The scandals will likely make it harder for Democrats to take control of either chamber in this fall’s elections.

The challenges will extend well beyond November, though. Virginia has styled itself as a moderate, even at times progressive Upper South state—far away from the social conservatism of the Deep South—in part thanks to the Democratic tilt of Northern Virginia. Democrats have disavowed the white supremacy of Harry Byrd, once the dominant politician in the state. Yet race has been a central issue in Virginia’s recent elections. The white-supremacist march in Charlottesville in August 2017 is an obvious spark point, but the march also showed the strength of racism still within the state, and helped bring out other elements. Corey Stewart, a Republican who espouses a neo-Confederate platform, unsuccessfully ran for the gubernatorial nomination in 2017, losing to Ed Gillespie but driving Gillespie to defend Confederate monuments. Gillespie lost. Stewart won the U.S. Senate nomination in 2018, and was routed by Senator Tim Kaine.

If those elections showed that Virginia still has a very real race problem, the past week has shown that it is not confined to the Republican Party. The Democratic Party of Virginia, like the Democratic Party nationally, has changed its ideology faster than it has changed its politicians. The older generation of leaders and elected officials in the party are young enough to have grown up at a time when young men should have known it was unacceptable to dress in blackface, but old enough that they might have done it anyway. There are no post-racial states, and no section of the United States that does not remain haunted by white supremacy.

Looming over these scandals is a question of redemption: Is there any way for politicians who behaved abhorrently years ago to gain forgiveness? One case study is Senator Robert Byrd of neighboring West Virginia, who led a local Klan chapter as a young man. He was also a prominent segregationist, involved in a filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But Byrd later came to regret his actions, saying, “The greatest mistake I ever made was joining the Ku Klux Klan.” He went on to support civil-rights legislation later in his career.

Both Herring and Northam have pointed to their progressive work on race since entering politics, hoping that might mitigate their past actions. Herring, perhaps, has done better, with his acknowledgment that the moment haunted him for years, and by getting ahead of the story. Herring may also have more luck in portraying his blackface moment as teenaged idiocy than Northam, whose offenses occurred when he was in medical school. Northam has stumbled both in the revelation that he dressed up in blackface another time and in his unconvincing attempts to explain away the yearbook photo and deny knowledge of it.

But whether either apology will be enough remains to be seen. In some ways, it may be easier to have been a proud racist and then have a road-to-Damascus moment, as Byrd did, than to engage in casual, private racism like Northam and Herring. The fate of Virginia’s politicians will offer new indications of where the Democratic Party is right now, and where it is headed.

* This story originally stated that Northam was previously a Republican. We regret the error.