It was a Wednesday in Richmond. The Ralph Northam story had quieted down and the Justin Fairfax saga was hanging fire. It was crazy, sure, but nothing too crazy that we weren’t all going back to talking about Donald Trump. And then, boom: the state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, admitted to wearing “brown makeup” to dress like Kurtis Blow back when he was in college.
This seemed to cap a mind-blowing series of events that have unfolded in the Commonwealth since last Friday. A quick review:
First, as we know, Governor Ralph Northam was outed as wearing blackface (or a KKK robe) in 1984. At the time everybody said hey, no problem, let’s just make him resign, and we’ll have an actual African-American as governor, and someone everyone likes and who took a strong stand against Confederate statuary to boot.
Then that very lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, got caught up in a #MeToo allegation from 2004, which he denies but which the woman, a serious professional, is clearly not content just to let drop. Well, crap, but okay then, thought Virginia Democrats, if we have to settle for the attorney general, we’ll do that, he’s a good progressive.
And then came Herring’s admission.
Only, that wasn’t the end of it. Just minutes after Herring outed himself on Wednesday right before lunchtime, Fairfax issued a new statement addressing the assault allegations made against him by Vanessa Tyson. Fairfax is standing his ground (“then, as now, I have nothing to hide”). But toward the tail end of lunch time, word leaked out that he had said of Tyson in a meeting: “fuck that bitch” (His office denied the “bitch” part but not the “fuck”).
And then, right after 2 pm, Tyson, who has an appointment at Stanford and holds a PhD from the University of Chicago, released her devastating statement about what she alleges Fairfax did to her in his hotel room in 2004. It’s disgusting, it’s gross, and it’s credible. She’s very specific about what she says happened, step by ugly step, and it’s all too believable. And if one needed further proof of her credibility, consider the lawyers she hired—the same firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford during her testimony against Brett Kavanaugh.
What. Is. Going. On?
Let’s start with Northam and Herring. We’re learning something about Virginia, aren’t we?
Although maybe it’s just us white people who are learning it. Black people must have known this all along. But yeah, you can definitely count me surprised that not one but two of the Commonwealth’s top white politicians, both of them Democrats, wore blackface when they were younger. And not in the 1950s, but the 1980s.
How widespread was this thing? I grew up in West Virginia in the 1970s and ’80s. I remember hearing way too much sickening racist humor, but I sure don’t remember seeing anyone in blackface. I guess I went to the wrong parties. Actually, make that the right parties.
But that was West Virginia. And Morgantown to boot, in the northern part of the state, a functional exurb of Pittsburgh even then. Virginia is a different matter. The capital of the Confederacy. Old habits die hard. They’re probably not even dead. That’s depressing. And if Northam and Herring did this, how many state legislators did the same thing? How many white men are walking around Richmond making laws who thought in the 1980s and ’90s that it was “funny” to do something that most of society considered in dubious taste going back to the late 1950s? And how many all across the South, and even beyond it?
Now, Fairfax. What on earth was he thinking? I mean doing that in the first place of course, but also his current behavior. If anything, he now looks even worse than Northam and Herring. F*ck that bitch? Seriously, dude? In a meeting, in front of a group of people? When you know you’re under the gun and being watched like you’ve never been watched in your life? And when you have a chance to go move your things into the governor’s mansion?
He’s cooked. Forget the governor’s mansion. He might not even be keeping his job. Maybe he shouldn’t. The only reason he wouldn’t be is that nobody gives a shit about the lieutenant governor one way or the other most of the time, although this is looking like one of those times when they will and should care.
As for Northam, is he politically lucky or what? For now, what he did is practically forgotten as everybody tries to process these other horrors. Is there now a chance he can somehow ride this out? It’s kind of like Trump, who benefits so much from the mayhem he creates.
Er, no, not really. He still holds the world record for horrible, indefensible handling of a situation.
Of the three, Herring handled his situation the best by far. He did what politicians are always afraid to do: He put it out there himself. His statement showed what certainly sounded like genuine contrition. He was just 19, unlike Northam, who was 25. And at least he was dressing up as somebody he liked, not as Sambo, standing next to the Klan member (unless Northam was in fact the Klan member, which we don’t know).
If they all have to go, a Republican could potentially take over, the guy who’s the speaker of the House of Delegates. But I’d bet as of today that Herring’s offense isn’t disqualifying. And Democrats sure aren’t going to be eager to put a Republican in the governor’s mansion. Important elections are coming up this fall. The Democrats only need to flip two seats in each chamber to capture them both. It seems impossible that Northam or Fairfax can lead that effort. Maybe Herring, if he handles these next few days the right way, can.
It’s going to get weirder still. In the meantime, for the future, Virginia Democrats, start cultivating some women for high office, please. They’re much less likely to have been assholes.