ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast. As Washington lawmakers try to navigate divided government, top Democrats in Virginia, they are embroiled in scandal. Let’s pull back the layers on the problems in the commonwealth and look at what it means for the Democratic Party.
Our great panel here to discuss it all: Amna Nawaz, national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Katty Kay, Washington anchor for BBC News America; and Susan Davis, congressional correspondent for NPR.
Virginia’s top three elected officials have found themselves at the center of scandal in the last week, Governor Ralph Northam for a racist blackface and KKK photo in his medical school yearbook. There are also allegations of sexual assault, a few of them, against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. And Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface when he was in college. The Washington Post Editorial Board called on Northam to resign, saying the governor “can no longer effectively serve the people of Virginia who elected him. His shifting and” misguided “explanations for the racist photograph on his medical school yearbook page, and the silence” which he has succumbed to for days “is simply too much.”
So what is going on in Virginia, and will one of these leaders resign at some point? What might the scandal mean for the party as a whole and for Democrats in 2020? Katty, we saw just on Friday night Senator Cory Booker was calling on – who’s running for president, of New Jersey – was calling on Justin Fairfax, the Virginia lieutenant governor, to step down, so it’s already trickling into the 2020 race.
KATTY KAY: Yeah, I mean, I think there has been some scrutiny of the Democrats who are running for the 2020 election because they were so forthcoming, some of those candidates, when it came to Brett Kavanaugh. And that – they wanted to have a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment, and we had Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris having to be kind of cornered in the corridors of the Senate in order to get some kind of comment out of them, and it was just noticeable that they were more reticent when it came to Justin Fairfax. Now, of course, you’ve got Terry McAuliffe coming out and saying he has to go as well, and if there are more allegations I think Fairfax’s position becomes harder and harder.
MR. COSTA: Who’s going to resign, Dan, if anyone?
DAN BALZ: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I think that what we’ve seen is that the Democrats are so shell-shocked by this that they’ve in a sense kind of pulled back, hunkered down, and they’re just kind of waiting to see what might unfold. I think that the lieutenant governor is at this point the most vulnerable. The two allegations of sexual assault against him are very, very serious. And given, as Katty said, the zero tolerance policy or view within the Democratic Party, I mean, almost everybody who’s running for president has come out already today to call for his resignation. So I think he’s –
MS. KAY: Though it took them a little time.
MR. BALZ: Well, only a few – only an hour or so. I mean, a number –
MS. KAY: No, on Friday yes, but with the first allegation.
MR. BALZ: Oh, no, on the first allegation, no, no –
MS. KAY: There was not – there was not zero-zero tolerance.
MR. BALZ: Right, right, the second allegation was the tipping point.
MS. KAY: Yeah, was the tipping point.
MR. BALZ: So I would think that he’s in the most jeopardy. But I talked to a senior Democrat this week about it who said, you know, we’re – we’ve just got to figure out a way to stop the bleeding. We need – we need some breathing room. We don’t know what’s coming next, so when we get asked questions we don’t quite know where we are in this thing. There is great concern about the governor’s ability to govern the state, which is why you had such a uniform call for his resignation. There is concern about what it might do to the – to the reputation of the state itself. And there’s great fear within the Democratic Party that this is just going to create a roadblock to what they saw as a kind of a steady rise to power.
SUSAN DAVIS: I mean, you have Democrats who just won an election in part because they campaigned as the party of racial inclusivity and women, and important to remember that these three men who are not embroiled in this scandal won because black people voted for them; and not just black people, but black women; and that they were a critical – not only are black women the most loyal demographic to the Democratic Party, but they have been a critical voting bloc in Virginia. Doug Jones in Alabama is a senator because of black women. Black women were Hillary Clinton’s most loyal supporters in 2016. They are a constituency – Stacey Abrams in Georgia, one of the rising stars in the party. And Democrats on a macro level think, I think, why you see the 2020 candidates involving themselves in Virginia. It is a constituency that needs to feel heard, it’s a constituency that needs to feel represented, and it’s a constituency that needs to feel respected. And Virginia, while it’s just one state, threatens to undermine all of that work that the Democratic Party has done on those issues if they don’t handle it well, and it’s a mess right now. It’s still not clear how it’s going to unfold, and they seem to be applying three different standards to three different men – which nuance is important, but in politics it can also hurt you. Is it zero tolerance or is it not? And they haven’t been able to come up with a clear, concise answer to defend the moral high ground that they were trying to claim on this.
MR. COSTA: It sparked a real conversation in Virginia about politics, about succession, who’s going to resign when, if at any time. It’s also sparked a discussion about race in the whole country, but especially in the South, where even in the 1980s professionals, people in medical school, were putting on blackface. What has this done for the conversation about race in the country?
AMNA NAWAZ: I think it’s continuing a very important and necessary conversation about race in America. Look, I’m a product of Virginia. I was born and raised. I’m a proud daughter of the state. And I do want to be careful to separate out because we talk about, you know, the Virginia leadership in chaos; these are two very different scandals, and anyone who’s ever been a victim of sexual assault or anything worse knows that when women come forward they usually do so because they want the truth to be heard. And so I agree with Dan, I think Lieutenant Governor Fairfax is in real trouble here because you now have two credible allegations against him. If Democrats follow precedent, you saw what they did with Al Franken; that’s a pretty clear line that they have to be able to draw.
The controversies surrounding Northam and Herring are slightly different. You’d like to be able to say that blackface is sort of the low-hanging fruit on what we can overtly call out as obviously racist, but now there’s a lot of equivocating going on about, well, it was a long time ago, look at their policies since then. Politically, who do we cede power to if both of them go? All of those things have complicated what should otherwise be a moral question, which is: Who do we stand for and where do we draw the line? And Democrats are going to have to answer for that down the line too.
MS. KAY: And that’s why it’s – you know, that’s why this is tricky for Democrats, right? Because it looks intensely Machiavellian. If number four in line of succession was a solid Democrat, would there be much more pressure on these top three to go, and would they have gone already? And so you have to ask the question, are they basically protecting the party? And that doesn’t look good in an era when you are trying to paint yourself as not the party of Trump and as being morally pure on issues like sexual harassment and race.
MR. COSTA: And they just spent part of the fall going after Justice Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing because there was a credible allegation against him.
MS. KAY: Right. I mean, how many top Democrats came out after the first accuser against Justin Fairfax and said: I believe her? One. Jennifer Wexton from –
MR. COSTA: It was the congresswoman from Northern Virginia.
MS. KAY: Yeah.
MS. NAWAZ: You also have to believe wherever they draw the line now they will have to be able to defend later, because you have to believe there are dozens of reporters out there going through every yearbook they can get their hands on. And there will be more photos and more things that both Republicans and Democrats have to answer for.
MR. BALZ: And not just reporters going through it. I’m confident that there are oppo researchers in both parties who are going through everything they possibly can. There’s power politics involved in this. There’s morality involved in this. There’s internal Democratic Party politics involved in this. And when you mix that all up – I mean, one of the reasons that the attorney general may be in a more secure position, or a less insecure position is that if he were to leave, the Republican-dominated House of Delegates would name the successor. And therefore, if you end up with, in the future, a Democratic governor, that person would have a Republican attorney general. That, to many Democrats is an untenable situation. So morality gets mixed up with power.
MS. KAY: There’s also potentially criminality. And we will have to see where those investigations lead from those accusers.
MR. BALZ: Yes. There’s one other point about this, though. And that is – stepping back from that – where is the point of redemption for people? I mean, in other words, what is inexcusable? What is not? But let’s say things are inexcusable, what’s the path to redemption for somebody? What’s the path to redemption for a Ralph Northam? Is it to resign and do something, or is it to prove while in office that they can redeem themselves? I mean, those are questions that society as a whole is having to grapple with when we go through these moments.
MS. KAY: And you’ve had some former civil rights leaders this week saying it’s one thing to apologize, but apology without some kind of penalty isn’t sufficient. There has to be a penalty as well as that apology. And although Mark Herring’s apology was that much more well-received and was more fulsome, the same standard, they would say, applies. He has to step down.
MR. COSTA: Judgment, and that’s real key here. Where is the judgment in a lot of these officials? And if they didn’t have it, maybe they get redemption on the outside. The reputation of the state could be at risk.
MS. DAVIS: It could be. And Virginia’s an important state. Yes, they have their own – the Republican speaker of the House. There’s all these internal state dynamics. But on a presidential level, it’s an important state. It’s a diverse state. And I think that’s why you saw a lot of the 2020 candidates, one, being pressed to respond to this, but also wanting to be seen as candidates that are responsive to Virginian interests, because these are votes that will matter in 2020. I think Democrats see their path to winning in 2020 built on a coalition that very much requires the support of women and the support of minorities in very high numbers to turn out and support them.
And if they think that the party is just as opportunistic when it comes to their votes and to their issues, that is a problem. That is a foundation-shaking problem. I don’t know if we’re there yet. This is very early stages of a scandal, of a political scandal. But it could get bigger, and bigger and bigger. And there is no one voice speaking for the party right now. And that is also part of the problem. And I think whoever comes out as being seen as a leader here, is – will stand to benefit.
MS. KAY: And if you have a close race, you don’t need very many people to stay home. And those women stood in the rain for two hours to cast their ballots in November of 2016 – in 2017, in Virginia.
MS. DAVIS: And you don’t want them to sit home next time.
MS. KAY: You don’t want them to stay home.
MS. DAVIS: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there and keep an eye on Virginia. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. And see you next time.