If Virginia Democrats thought leaving Richmond would let them start moving on from the scandals that have ensnared their top leaders, Republicans wasted no time revealing they plan to go on the attack heading into a pivotal election season.
Shortly after adjourning the wildest General Assembly session in recent memory, Republican leaders in the House of Delegates released a digital video ad featuring ominous cable news clips on the controversies engulfing Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring.
The tone shifts as the ad transitions to local news reports on the Republican-controlled House’s efforts to lower taxes, raise teachers’ pay, improve school safety and expand health insurance coverage for children with autism.
“Virginia’s choice is clear,” the narrator says. “Chaos and embarrassment. Or leadership and results.”
With Northam, Fairfax and Herring still in office in varying degrees of political peril due to scandals over race and gender, the General Assembly election cycle will begin with extraordinary uncertainty about what the rest of the year will bring.
Republicans hoping to retain their slim majorities in the House and Senate are leaving Richmond emboldened by the disarray on the Democratic side. Democrats, aiming to take full control of state government for the first time in decades, are pondering how to run on their own policy agenda, without the usual top-down support from executive branch leaders.
In a recent interview, House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said she’s confident Virginians will see clearly which party supports marginalized communities, women’s rights, science, equality and standing up for working people.
“All of that is going to be clear. We can point to speeches on the floor. We can point to bills we’ve introduced,” Filler-Corn said.
But it remains unclear if any Democrats will be willing to appear with Northam at any bill-signing ceremonies in the next few weeks, let alone campaign rallies or fundraisers in the fall with all 140 General Assembly seats up for election.
Elected Democrats resoundingly called for the governor to resign on Feb. 1 after Northam said he was in a racist photo that appeared on his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page showing a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb.
Northam didn’t appear to change many minds the next day when he said he no longer believed he was in the photo, suggested it may have been published on his page by mistake, and admitted to wearing blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest in San Antonio that same year.
White leaders unsure of what to say about Northam largely followed the lead of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which called for Northam’s resignation and said black lawmakers’ confidence in his ability to lead had been “eviscerated.”
Throughout the ordeal, black caucus members, particularly younger lawmakers, have made forceful calls for a reckoning with Virginia’s racist past that moves beyond rhetoric and into policy action.
Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, an African-American legislator who chose not to attend a breakfast meeting at the Executive Mansion to discuss Northam’s budget priorities, said he’s had time to think since then, but still believes the governor has “a lot of work to do.”
“We need to get past this session,” he said, “and I think things will be OK.”
Though denunciations of Northam have subsided, Democrats are finding themselves in an increasingly tough bind over two sexual assault allegations against Fairfax, who was on the verge of becoming the state’s second African-American governor when it appeared Northam might step down.
On Friday, House Republicans said they intend to hold a committee hearing on the sexual assault allegations and will invite Fairfax and his two accusers — Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson — to testify.
House Democrats have denounced the plan as a political show trial that would violate Fairfax’s rights to due process and could end with no clear answers about the veracity of the accusations.
Fairfax has adamantly denied the allegations and has accused House Republicans of trying to distract attention from their votes to block ratification of the federal Equal Rights Amendment, a gender equality measure that passed the Senate with bipartisan support.
Fairfax took his defense a step further as the Senate adjourned Sunday, comparing his predicament to Virginia’s history of slavery and racial oppression.
“If we go backwards in a rush to judgment, and we allow for political lynchings without any due process, any facts, any evidence being heard, then I think we do a disservice to this very body in which we all serve,” Fairfax said.
The House GOP has not said when it plans to hold the hearings, and Fairfax has not said if he intends to accept the invitation to testify.
Herring, who had already announced plans to run for governor in 2021, has kept a low profile since he admitted to wearing blackface to dress as a rapper in 1980 while he was a student at the University of Virginia.
Unlike Northam and Fairfax, the attorney general has not faced widespread calls to step down. No photo of Herring in blackface has emerged, but he has come under fire for saying Northam should resign when he had a similar racial transgression in his own past.
Herring came forward with his blackface story after media outlets were pursuing it. Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that an Associated Press reporter emailed Herring’s office on the morning of Feb. 6 saying a photo had been described to the outlet in “a level of detail” that needed a response.
The reporter asked Herring’s office if the attorney general had ever worn blackface and requested a “yes-or-no” answer. That same morning, Herring made his admission in a meeting with the black caucus and then released a statement of apology.
The turmoil surrounding Northam and the two Democrats most likely to succeed him was a stunning twist of fate for a party enjoying a string of wins fueled partly by animosity toward President Donald Trump.
Just a few months ago, Virginia Democrats were riding high after another big election night.
Three Democratic women were heading to Congress after unseating Republican incumbents. Former state Sen. Jennifer Wexton had beaten Republican Barbara Comstock, a top Democratic target who had repelled several previous challengers in her Northern Virginia district.
With those successes came churn below.
Wexton’s move created an opening for former Del. Jennifer Boysko, who had sponsored an ambitious abortion rights bill in 2018. After Boysko won a special election for Wexton’s old seat in the Virginia Senate, pro-abortion rights advocates needed a new champion in the House of Delegates. They found one in Del. Kathy Tran, D-Prince William, an inexperienced, first-term lawmaker who was part of the 2017 blue wave that pushed House Democrats to the cusp of taking control.
When Tran walked into a committee room in late January to present her bill, which lifted or eased a wide variety of abortion restrictions imposed by Republicans, she ran into a buzzsaw of questioning from House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, an ex-prosecutor and veteran GOP tactician.
Without pro-abortion rights doctors in the room to back her up, Tran fumbled a hypothetical question about whether her bill would let a woman request an abortion for mental health reasons as she was going into labor. Tran said it would, giving Republicans video footage that went viral on social media and brought conservative outrage.
That viral moment, and Northam’s clumsily worded response to it in a radio interview the next day, seemed to be the spark that set off the bonfire of scandals. Representatives for Big League Politics, the right-wing website that first published an image of Northam’s yearbook page, told news outlets the photo emerged as a result of the abortion controversy.
Tyson, the first Fairfax accuser to come forward, said she chose to do so because she believed Fairfax might replace Northam.
Though some Democrats backed off the abortion bill’s provisions to loosen restrictions on late-term abortions to protect the mother’s health, Republicans seem eager to extend the abortion debate into the campaigns.
“This session, America was horrified about legislation being put forth by the other side of the aisle,” Gilbert said last week as House Republicans turned a symbolic resolution to raise awareness for preterm births into a proxy battle on abortion.
Democrats accused Republicans of cynically twisting Tran’s words and misrepresenting her bill, unleashing hate and threats from anti-abortion extremists.
“They were playing with fire and they knew it,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, a group that supported Tran’s bill.
Keene said she doesn’t believe the ensuing chain of revelations about statewide leaders was a coincidence. She noted that it came as House Republicans’ chances of holding their majority dimmed due to an unfavorable redistricting ruling that could make it harder to prevent a Democratic majority.
“It is not lost on us that this was a coordinated, orchestrated planned political attack that had been in the making for a while,” Keene said. “It didn’t necessarily have to be on an abortion bill.”
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, whose name has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Northam or Fairfax, said she expects Republicans to use the recent controversies as campaign fodder, because they “can’t win on the merits of the agenda.”
Asked for her thoughts on how the scandals will affect Democrats’ ability to govern and win going forward, McClellan said, “Time will tell.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s don’t try to predict the future.”