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Virginia political turmoil leads to moment of reckoning for Democrats

With two Virginia state leaders admitting to wearing blackface and another accused of sexual assault, Democrats are debating not only a change in leadership but what their party stands for. Amna Nawaz is joined by Washington Post reporter Eugene Scott and Harvard University historian Leah Wright Rigueur to discuss this moment of reckoning in American politics.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nearly a week after revelations about Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's past with blackface first emerged, questions continue about who will lead the state. Democrats have to decide what the future of their party will now look like.

    In Richmond, Virginia, an unprecedented scandal engulfing the state's top three elected officials. It began last Friday, when a racist photo from Democratic Governor Ralph Northam's 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced.

  • Gov. Ralph Northam, D-Va.:

    I'm deeply sorry.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That evening, Northam apologized. But the next day, he said he wasn't in the photo, though he said he had worn blackface in 1984, dressing as Michael Jackson for a dance contest.

  • Gov. Ralph Northam, D-Va.:

    Right now, I am simply asking for the opportunity to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that the person I was is not the man I am today. I am asking for the opportunity to earn your forgiveness.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Party leaders, at the state and national level, have called for Northam to resign. As of today, he has not.

    Meanwhile, Northam's number two, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, faces his own scandal. On Monday, Fairfax responded to an anonymous allegation of sexual assault, calling the accusation — quote — "defamatory and false."

    On Wednesday, his accuser came forward, Vanessa Tyson, a California professor, providing details of the alleged assault and a statement through her attorney.

    Tyson says, in 2004, Fairfax led her to his hotel room in Boston, where — quote — "Consensual kissing quickly turned to sexual assault."

    Fairfax issued a response, admitting — quote — "a consensual encounter" with Tyson, but said he — quote — "cannot agree with a description of events that I know is not true."

    Fairfax ignored questions from reporters today in Richmond. Also on Wednesday, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface as a 19-year-old college student in 1980. Herring had previously called for Northam to resign. The admission came after a meeting with the state's Legislative Black Caucus.

    In his statement Herring said — quote — "This was a one-time occurrence, and I take full responsibility for my conduct."

    All three men, once seen as Democratic rising stars, are so far refusing to step aside. If all three Democrats resign, House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican, will assume the role of governor.

    The turmoil in Virginia's capital is just the latest example in a larger reckoning happening across American politics and culture.

    For more on that, I'm joined by Eugene Scott. He is a reporter covering identity politics for The Washington Post. And Leah Wright Rigueur, she's a professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. She's also the author of "The Loneliness of the Black Republican."

    And welcome to you both.

    Eugene, I want to begin with you here.

    Immediately following Governor Northam's pictures surfacing from that yearbook, there was a collective, strong call for his resignation. In the days following, as the other scandals emerged, that subsided somewhat.

    Unpack for me sort of how that political calculation for Democrats in Virginia has evolved.

  • Eugene Scott:

    I think what Democrats in Virginia have come to realize is just the complexity of what is happening in their state at the top levels.

    You have the three most powerful politicians, all Democrats, all in scandals that, a year ago, Democrats would have easily called for their resignation over.

    I think what they have come to realize, though, is that, if all three of these individuals leave office, that the most powerful politician in Virginia will be a Republican. And we have to remember that, after the midterm elections, there was so much discussion about how Virginia had finally turned blue consistently.

    And if these three men leave their position, that won't be the case. And I think some on the left are trying to figure out where their values are, what's most important to them, and what's at risk long-term.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor Rigueur, I want to ask you about this, because we have to separate out some of these cases, right. There are allegations of sexual assault in one case and racist behavior in the others.

    And we should point out that, actually, California Senator Kamala Harris has called for an investigation into the allegations against Justin Fairfax.

    But kind of help me draw that line here. We have to remind people this is the party that did force out Al Franken based on sexual assault allegations. How are the Democrats weighing this? Are they treating Justin Fairfax differently?

  • Leah Wright Rigueur:

    So, I think what's — part of what's going on right now is that Virginia Democrats are, you know, hunkering down. They're in their war rooms, and they're trying to find a way out of this really complex, messy situation that has no easy answer.

    What is — you know, what is the pathway where we do the moral thing? And where's the pathway where we do the political thing that allows us to maintain power, and including policy-making power?

    And so what you're going to — I think what you're going to see, and what we have seen thus far is that, you know, Northam has lawyered up. Fairfax has lawyered up, indicating that they both intend to kind of fight and that they both want to keep their positions.

    But we have seen increasing pushback from Virginia Democrats, first on Northam and the blackface, but increasingly just kind of slowly — it's slow-moving, but it is coming — we have seen a criticism of this — you know, of accusations of sexual assault.

    So I think, as that investigation heats up, and particularly around the claims — we know that the accuser has come forward and made a very powerful and very forceful statement — that there — that Virginia Democrats, but also the Democratic Party more much more broadly, is going to have to have a real reckoning, with a racial reckoning, but also a gender and sexual assault reckoning in the coming weeks.

    And they're going to have to do it on a public stage.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor Rigueur, I want to ask you in the follow-up now, the party has centered women's rights and minority rights and racial justice as part of their platform, particularly as they try to distinguish themselves from Republicans moving forward.

    So the longer they take to have this reckoning, does that not take away from their power to later have the moral authority on those issues?

  • Leah Wright Rigueur:

    Well, the moment that we have a blackface scandal and sexual assault allegation charges, that pushes back at this moral high road or this idea of the moral outrage or having kind of the moral high ground.

    But we also know that sexual assault and wearing blackface and engaging in kind of racist and disrespectful acts doesn't have a partisan bent, that it's actually a bipartisan endeavor.

    We should have — it's been clear. There's a long history of this in both political parties. What's different, however, is the way in which Democrats more generally have addressed this. We saw this again during the MeToo movement, where there was explicit calling out.

    And I think part of what you are beginning to see, particularly around issues of sexual assault and MeToo, is that Democrats are being consistent in calling for investigations, in calling and saying, I believe — I believe women.

    So we are seeing that, while they're also trying to be sensitive to what it takes to maintain power. With something like Ralph Northam, and with blackface, that has become a far more trickier — far more trickier question, particularly once the Fairfax accusations emerged.

    So, before there was any doubt that — about replacements, it was almost pretty natural for Democrats to say, Northam needs to step down, and that Northam needs to resign. Now we're seeing a pulling back on that a little bit, because of the reality of what happens if all of the people, all the people involved in these scandals resign in terms of ceding power.

    But there's also wrestling with the very — the very real reality that the Democratic Party has based its outward appearance on respect for minority rights, respect for women's rights.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And let me ask, Eugene, about that outward appearance.

    You have been talking to voters in Virginia. The big question here is, is there room for forgiveness, right? Will Virginia voters, will other Democrats look at these folks and say, OK, there can be a place for you in the party?

    What are they telling you, voters there?

  • Eugene Scott:

    Yes, this is a perfect opportunity to remind people that black Americans are not a monolith.

    And so I have spoken to different black Americans in Virginia who are responding differently. Some would have loved to see Northam leave immediately. Others are more aware that perhaps this is something that happened 30 years ago, and that's not where he is right now.

    There's also deeply concerned about losing power to the GOP, and having someone at the top of Virginia politics who is more in line with Donald Trump than opposed to Donald Trump, and the real implications that that will have on their ability to live the lives that they believe they should have.

    But I think what people are starting to realize in ways that maybe we didn't see discussed last year or the years before is how significant the ramifications of having an automatically you're out approach to issues related to racism, related to sexual violence and other concerning, problematic issues could be when it comes to public policy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How do you think, Eugene, that this complicates Democrats' future efforts to make that case to voters in Virginia and beyond?

  • Eugene Scott:

    It's going to be really difficult to consistently argue that you are the party of diversity and marginalized communities, and that you're a much better party than the party on the other side of the aisle, when some of your most prominent faces have this as a part of their narrative, and seem not to have responded immediately in a way that appeased the constituents that put them in office.

    I think it's worth pointing out that black lawmakers in the Virginia legislature said they have lost confidence in Northam's ability to lead. And that sends a message to the people who put them in power, hoping that they can improve the lives for all Virginians.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The story is fast evolving. We will continue to follow it here.

    Eugene Scott and Leah Wright Rigueur, thank you very much for your time.

  • Eugene Scott:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Leah Wright Rigueur:

    Thank you.

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