It’s been less than a week since it was discovered that the medical school yearbook page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) featured a photo with a person dressed in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan robe.
Somehow, things have only gotten worse.
Northam, barely one year into his four-year term, is trying to retain his post amid a barrage of calls that he step down ― a clamor that includes virtually every other major Democrat in the state. Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would replace Northam ― but he would do so under the cloud of a sexual misconduct allegation that just became public. If Fairfax is forced from office, still another Democrat ― Attorney General Mark Herring ― is next in line for the top job. But in Virginia’s latest “can you believe this” moment, Herring on Wednesday fessed up to his own youthful incident of racism.
All this in a state where Democrats had been riding a strong wave of political momentum.
The wildfire of political chaos began when the racist image surfaced on Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page, which also features images of the medical school graduate and his name artfully written in calligraphy at the top.
Backlash to the image was swift, with top Democratic leaders both inside the state and out calling for Northam’s resignation. The disgraced governor immediately issued an apology, saying he was “deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”
But then, Northam changed his story the following day, suddenly adamant that he was not in the photo. In a weekend press conference, Northam argued he would have had a clear memory of being in blackface or a KKK robe, because he did have a clear memory of a time he did wear blackface.
“That same year [as the yearbook’s release] I did participate in a dance contest... in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume,” Northam told reporters. Providing elaboration when none were necessarily needed, he added that he won the contest by imitating the late pop singer’s signature move ― the moonwalk.
A reporter asked if the governor could still moonwalk. Northam appeared to mull the idea over before his wife, standing by his side, chided him for considering even considering it under “inappropriate circumstances” ― during a press conference about him being in blackface.
The New York Times reported Monday that a source close to Northam said the governor intended to hire a private investigator to examine the blackface/KKK photo. Nine of his former medical school classmates expressed support for Northam, issuing a statement that said they believe he is not in the photo.
As the furor built around Northam, attention quickly focused on Fairfax ― who is black and has been viewed as a rising political star. But just two days after Northam’s bizarre press conference, Fairfax faced his own troubles after an allegation of sexual assault against him surfaced. A woman claimed Fairfax assaulted her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
In a statement, Fairfax denied the claim. Meanwhile, NBC News reported that in a private meeting about the accusation on Monday, he said “fuck that bitch,” referring to the woman. Fairfax has denied using that phrase.
Now comes the admission by Herring ― who also seemed to have a promising political future ― that he wore “brown makeup” during a 1980 college party in which he wanted to look like musician Kurtis Blow. In his apology, Herring said “honest conversations” would ensue about whether he should continue to serve.
“That I have contributed to the pain Virginians have felt this week is the greatest shame I have ever felt,” he said in a statement.
While dazed Virginians wait to see if other scandals emerge, they’re at least getting a civics lesson on their state’s line of gubernatorial succession.
If Northam, Fairfax and Herring all step down, Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox ― a Republican ― would become governor. But freak circumstances surround even Cox’s position.
GOP control of the state House of Delegates ― and Cox’s selection as speaker ― occurred after a tie for a House seat in the state’s November 2017 election was settled in favor of a Republican. And how did that Republican become the winner over his Democratic opponent? His name was picked out of a bowl.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated the yearbook featuring a racist photo of Northam was from his college; it was from his medical school.