Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam; Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax; Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (AP/Salon)

Will Dems lose Virginia governorship? State's top three officials embroiled in scandal

Virginia Democrats launched the blue wave in 2017 by sweeping to power. Now they're on the verge of losing it all


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Igor Derysh
February 7, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)

Democrats swept all three statewide races in Virginia in 2017, but all three office-holders are now embroiled in multiple scandals that could result in Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox becoming the commonwealth’s new governor.

Last week, the conservative news site Big League Politics published a photo from Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook showing two men, one dressed in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe, and purporting that one of them was Northam.

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Northam initially apologized, saying he was in the photo. Later he backtracked, denying that he was either of the men pictured. He admitted, however, that he wore blackface on a separate occasion for a Michael Jackson costume in 1984.

Virtually every Virginia Democrat, and most major figures in the party, called for Northam to resign, a move that would in the normal line of succession elevate Democratic Lt, Gov. Justin Fairfax to the governor’s mansion.

Fairfax had long been considered a rising star in the party who drew praise for taking a stand against a ceremony honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee just last month.

Then Big League Politics ran a story citing a private Facebook post from a woman who accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004.

Vanessa Tyson, now a professor at Scripps College in California,  alleged that she accompanied Fairfax to his hotel room while attending the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. They began kissing and, according to Tyson's account, Fairfax then forced her to perform oral sex on him, The Washington Post reported.

According to the Post, reporters were approached by the woman after Fairfax won his Virginia election but the paper did not run the story because they could not corroborate her account.

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Fairfax denies the allegations. NBC News reported that Fairfax lashed out over the allegations during a private meeting Monday and tried to discredit Tyson. At one point, NBC reported, he said, “F**k that bitch.”

If Fairfax resigns or declines to accept the governor’s job while he deals with his own scandal, the next person in the line of succession would be Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring.

But there's a big problem with Herring taking over for an embattled governor facing a blackface scandal: Herring has admitted to wearing blackface in college in the 1980s too.

Herring said in a statement Wednesday that he wore blackface and a wig to look like a rapper when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.

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Herring, Bloomberg noted, had already planned to run for governor in 2021 -- Virginia governors are limited to one term -- and was among the many Democrats calling for Northam to step down.

If all three top Democrats in the line of succession are unable to hold the governor’s job, that could result in Democrats losing the Governor’s Mansion altogether.

The next person in line after Herring is House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican. Cox only became speaker because Republicans managed to hold onto a one-seat majority after a tied race was decided by drawing a name out of a bowl.

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Republican Del. David Yancey was tied with Democrat Shelly Simonds after all votes were counted in the 2017 Virginia election. Yancey was elected by drawing names from a ceramic bowl. That single game of chance allowed Republicans to hold a majority in the House of Delegates -- and may now wipe out virtually all the gains  of the 2017 Democratic sweep.

If for some reason Cox is unable to serve then the House of Delegates would convene to select a new acting governor, who would almost certainly also be a Republican. The acting governor would serve out the remainder of Northam’s term through 2021.

Of course, at this writing Northam is still governor, having refused to resign despite mounting calls for him to do so from his own party. Instead, the Washington Post reports, he is considering leaving the party.

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“His shock at being so quickly discarded by the party has made it harder for Northam to accept the calls to resign,” sources close to the governor told the Post. “Over the past several days, he has even toyed with the idea of leaving the Democratic Party and governing as an independent — a sign of the degree that he is isolated from every political ally, from his state party and from the national party.”


Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is a New York-based political writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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