Washington • The decision by Virginia’s top three elected officials to hunker down and cling to their jobs is bad for both the state and the Democratic Party. If they won’t go, the only thing to do is investigate them all.
Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring have all forfeited the public’s trust, in my opinion, and should resign. That would create an unprecedented political mess — but it’s useless to speculate what might happen next, since all three are staying put. They seem to have decided there is safety in numbers.
I don’t see any way, realistically, that anyone can force them to leave, at least not yet. Under the state constitution, elected leaders can be impeached for “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor.” But the officials are in trouble for things that transpired — or, in Fairfax’s case, allegedly did — long before taking office. And no one has any idea what the burden of proof would be in a trial before the state senate.
Fairfax faces the most serious allegations — and the most serious impeachment talk. But tossing him out of office while letting Northam and Herring stay would be a political nightmare.
Fairfax is accused by one woman of sexual assault while both were attending the 2004 Democratic National Convention and by another woman of rape while she and Fairfax were undergraduates at Duke University. He vehemently and categorically denies both allegations, claiming the encounters were consensual. Both women have said they are willing to testify publicly; Fairfax says he has nothing to hide.
The Fairfax allegations, however, have to be seen in the context of the Northam and Herring admissions.
Northam is in trouble because a hideously racist image — of a young man in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe — was found to have appeared on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. And because, in denying being the man in the picture wearing blackface, he revealed that he did wear blackface that same year on another occasion. And because he has sounded unacceptably clueless, in general, about race.
Herring is in trouble because he, too, acknowledged once wearing blackface. It might be a good idea, at this point, to poll white Virginia officials and ask who hasn’t worn blackface.
A Washington Post poll showed that while white Virginians were almost evenly split on whether Northam should step down, African-Americans thought by a wide margin that he should remain in office. Some analysts were surprised; I wasn’t. Northam’s progressive policies have been popular, and African-Americans in the South are jaded about the possibility that there might be racial skeletons rattling around any politician’s closet.
But my guess is that if pollsters asked whether Fairfax should be impeached or forced to resign while Northam and Herring are allowed to stay, the result would be quite different.
Fairfax is African-American; he bears the name of Virginia's most populous county, where his ancestors were once enslaved. When he was sworn in as lieutenant governor, he had his great-great-great-grandfather's manumission papers in his pocket. If two white officials caught up in scandal are given a pass while a black official caught up in scandal is forced out, the Virginia Democratic Party — which is heavily dependent on the African-American vote — will have a lot of explaining to do.
Virginia is a purple state that has been trending decidedly blue. President Trump's transparent attempt to pour salt into the wounds — "African Americans are very angry at the double standard on full display in Virginia!" he tweeted Sunday — is a preview of what Democrats would surely face in 2020.
Virtually every prominent Virginia Democrat has called on Northam to resign, but he says he's staying put. That gives Fairfax and Herring every incentive to stay put, too. Adding to the political angst, if all three Democratic officials were to resign, the next in line for the governorship would be the speaker of the House of Delegates, a Republican.
It seems to me that the only way forward is some kind of investigative process by the state legislature, commenced as soon as possible, that looks into the acknowledged or alleged transgressions of all three officials. Then there would be a more solid basis for impeachment or absolution.
Let Virginians hear all about Northam's and Herring's histories with race. Let the public hear directly from both Fairfax and his accusers. Put everybody under oath, and let the cameras roll.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Without it, the open wounds in Richmond can only fester.
Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Washington Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section.
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