The Virginia Democratic Party needs a fresh start

The party needs to move forward from scandals


(Will Katcher/Daily Collegian)

By James Woglom, Collegian Contributor

In early February, the Virginia Democratic Party collapsed into a state of disarray. Riding high from victories which provided Democrats with near-complete control over state government, separate scandals engulfing the state’s top three statewide officeholders—the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, all Democrats—threaten to destroy the party and possibly even start a constitutional crisis.

Governor Ralph Northam’s infamy began as he made a misguided comment in reference to abortion legislation. Taken out of context, this was used by some people to imply his support of “infanticide,” which he later denied. Northam, a former physician, should have known that this faux-controversy was avoidable had he been more careful with his words. Following backlash in conservative media circles came the news which set the state Democratic Party, and the national media, on fire: copies of Northam’s yearbook pages which contained a photograph of a man in KKK robes and a man in blackface, and a nickname featuring a racist epithet.

Northam was unable to keep a consistent story about what had occurred, shifting from an initial statement apologizing for the photo, but not stating which person he was, to claiming he was not in the photo at all (and had “no clue” about the nickname). Despite his denial, Northam did acknowledge having appeared in blackface at a college dance competition impersonating Michael Jackson; after boasting that he had won the contest, he nearly moonwalked on stage in response to a reporter’s question, before being advised that it was “inappropriate circumstances” by his wife.

Reaction to the yearbook pages was swift: the entire institutional structure of Virginia Democrats called for his resignation, as well as national Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and several 2020 presidential contenders. By the end of the weekend, it seemed nearly unfathomable that Northam could continue in office.

With Northam’s presumed resignation, the ascension of Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, a rising star in the party who would become the second Black governor of Virginia, seemed imminent. However, Scripps College professor Dr. Vanessa Tyson then accused Fairfax of sexual assault.

Suggesting that he may be already bungling the situation, Fairfax reportedly said “f*** that b****,” referring to Tyson, during a private meeting with staff after release of the allegations. He also claimed publicly that supporters of Northam were behind its release. (Members of Fairfax’s staff acknowledged his use of a profanity, but denied that he directed any hate toward Tyson.) In further bad optics that suggest the situations are analogous, Fairfax has solicited the same law firm that defended Brett Kavanaugh against allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford.

On Friday, a second woman, Meredith Watson, also accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in college. As more details have become public, and Virginia and national Democrats have weighed in, it seems clear that the allegations against Fairfax won’t be ignored; by Sunday, the Virginia Democratic Party had called for his resignation.

Attorney General Mark Herring, after Fairfax in the line of succession for governor, was an early voice for Northam’s resignation and yet days later acknowledged in an apology letter that he had, in college, also appeared in blackface, putting the fate of his post in question. Virginia Democrats have, at the moment, condemned him but not requested his resignation.

None of the three men have announced plans to resign but should they do so, the governorship would fall to Republican Kirk Cox, who is only serving as Speaker of the House of Delegates due to a tie in which control of the chamber was decided by drawing a name out of a bowl. Rev. Al Sharpton has said this situation reaches a constitutional crisis.

Virginia restricts governors to a single term, so Fairfax and Herring were both viewed as likely figures for the next election. What can a state party do when its leader, the governor and two politicians of its future, the lieutenant governor and attorney general, have been found by the public as unfit for office?

The answer is to look outside the state party establishment and instead take a bet on new leadership. While Northam was considered the favorite in his 2017 race for governor, he faced an underdog opponent: former congressional representative and State Department official Tom Perriello. In a state vs. national party proxy battle, Northam was endorsed by every member of the Virginia General Assembly, while Perriello was supported by both progressive and Obama/Clinton-aligned members of the national Democratic party, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, John Podesta and Our Revolution, a group affiliated with Bernie Sanders.

Perriello’s campaign represented a valiant attempt to bring progressive policies to a party which, only a decade ago, still represented a mostly-red state. He refused to accept contributions from Dominion Energy, a heavy political force seeking construction of a gas pipeline across the state, and emphasized issues standard across the national party such as a higher minimum wage and protections for undocumented immigrants. In the primary race against Northam, who previously admitted voting for George W. Bush twice and was being solicited by Virginia Republicans to switch parties (at the same time as Perriello held his congressional seat), Perriello lost by 12 points in a closer-than-expected race.

If the old guard of Virginia Democrats have failed, why should the party stake its future with scandal-ridden and establishment politicians who don’t represent a changing Virginia? Virginia Democrats should use the scandals plaguing the party establishment as an opportunity to move forward with young, progressive leaders who can shift the Commonwealth in the right direction.

James Woglom is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]