Virginia Democrats Face Triple Scandal Combining Race and #MeToo
(Bloomberg) -- In the capital of the former Confederacy, three top Democratic officials are being engulfed by widening scandals that evoke the South’s ugly history on race as well as the more recent accounting of the #MeToo movement.
Virginia’s Democratic governor and attorney general both were forced to admit they wore blackface in the 1980s, and the lieutenant governor is confronting an allegation that he sexually assaulted a woman more than a decade ago.
The extraordinary triple scandal in Virginia’s state capital of Richmond is reigniting a national debate about racism and sexual assault, one with statewide and national political implications. It comes as Virginia tilts ideologically leftward in statewide and national elections and as Democrats are being held to account by a party base where African Americans and women have a large presence.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said Wednesday that he and his friends "dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup" in the 1980s in an attempt to imitate rappers such as Kurtis Blow and sing a song.
"This was a onetime occurrence and I accept full responsibility for my conduct," he said in a statement. "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 a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then."
Herring’s admission followed Governor Ralph Northam’s extraordinary press conference on Saturday in which he apologized for having darkened his skin to dress up like Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984. It was his defense against revelation of a photo that appears on his 1984 medical school yearbook page, featuring one individual dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe alongside another in blackface. After first admitting to appearing in the picture, Northam insisted it wasn’t him.
Northam has resisted a flurry of calls to resign from Democrats, including Virginia’s two U.S. senators, the dean of its congressional delegation, Representative Bobby Scott, and its most recent governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Also among those urging Northam to resign was Herring, who is second in line of succession in the state’s government.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax released a statement Wednesday acknowledging a sexual assault allegation against him by a woman, saying that while it has "been both surprising and hurtful, I also recognize that no one makes charges of this kind lightly, and I take it and this situation very seriously."
"I wish her no harm or humiliation, nor do I seek to denigrate her or diminish her voice. But I cannot agree with a description of events that I know is not true," he said.
Two days earlier, Fairfax curtly brushed off the accusation about an incident at the 2004 Democratic National Convention as a "smear."
Vanessa Tyson, a professor at Scripps College in Claremont, California, said in a statement released Wednesday by her lawyer that an encounter that started as consensual kissing "turned into a sexual assault" when Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him at a hotel while they were working at the Democratic convention in Boston. She said she hadn’t given consent, never spoke to him again and suffered "deep humiliation and shame."
She said Fairfax "has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions."
The scandals broke into the open at the same time as the Democratic Party is counting on a voting base increasingly made up of women and minorities. Both groups helped the party gain control of the House largely in reaction to the election of President Donald Trump. Trump faced various allegations of sexual harassment and assault during the 2016 election -- which he’s denied -- and has been accused of making racist statements. Even some of his supporters have called him racially insensitive.
Virginia has become a key part of the Democratic national election strategy as the state’s fast-growing suburban areas have shifted away from the GOP. Long a Republican bastion, Virginia voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in the last three elections.
The venue of the scandals has symbolic significance as Richmond served as the capital of the Confederate States of America for most of the Civil War.
Republican power in state and local offices has declined. Democrats gained 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017, narrowing the Republican majority to one vote. That presaged gains Democrats made in the state in the 2018 congressional election, when they ousted two incumbent Republicans to help the party gain control of the House. The scandals likely will linger into the next state legislature elections in November 2019.
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