My Poor Commonwealth

Greetings, loyal minions.

Well, well, well. The regularly uninteresting political situation in my home, the Commonwealth of Virginia, has become rather noteworthy of late. Unless you’ve lived under a rock, or just ignored politics generally, you have likely heard about what has happened recently in Richmond. Allow me to summarize:

1) Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook has part of a page dedicated to him that shows a man in blackface and another in a KKK outfit. The Governor may or may not be in the photo. And he may or may not have been responsible for selecting the photo to be put in the yearbook.

2) Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax has been accused by two women of sexual assault. One alleges she was assaulted during the Democratic National Convention in 2004. The other alleges she was assaulted while she and Fairfax were students at Duke University.

3) Attorney General Mark Herring has admitted that he wore makeup to darken his skin (but apparently not full-out blackface) during a his time at the University of Virginia.

4) State Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment edited the Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI) yearbook in 1968. A yearbook that is filled with racist photos and statements.

That is the shortened jist of what has come out. That is also the order in which this news was made public. Except for the second accuser coming forward about Justin Fairfax, that happened after the Tommy Norment story broke. The Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General are all Democrats. Senator Norment is a Republican.

In the immediate aftermath of learning about the Governor’s yearbook page (apparently “leaked” to a right-wing web site in the aftermath of a stunningly horrifying interview by the Governor in which he seemed to advocate infanticide) there were - and one supposes there remain - widespread calls for the Governor to resign. The Governor issued a video statement in which he expressed regret over the yearbook. Then a day after his statement of regret, the Governor held a press conference that was best described as somewhat surreal in which he denied that the was in the photo, didn’t know how the photo got there, admitted to dressing like Michael Jackson at another time, and nearly demonstrated his moonwalking skills. The Governor has since given another television interview in which he stated that black Africans were first bought to Virginia as indentured servants, not slaves. (NB: It has been a very very long time since I’ve read/studied this so I may be wrong and/or the scholarship may have changed in the intervening decades; but the Governor may not be technically wrong on this - though he should have just learned a lesson from all his other missteps and just shut the hell up about slavery. As I recall, among the first Africans brought to Jamestown some may have been given indenture papers. But this practice was short-lived at best and slavery came to Virginia shortly after Jamestown was founded. Again, my memory is hazy and I am open to being wrong on this point. More broadly speaking - it doesn’t matter one iota in the grand scheme - except to pedantic history nerds. Slaves came. If one is trying to be sensitive to over 400 years of slavery, racism, and inequality you ought not to try to score pedantic points.) So that is where the Governor is…

The Lt. Governor is calling for investigations into the allegations. Allegations he flatly denies. There have been calls for his resignation as well.

The Attorney General has seemed to benefit from all the other news stories as he now seems to be laying low and hoping it all blows past.

Senator Norment, too, is laying low and hoping it all blows past.

In my opinion, laying low and hoping it all blows past is the right strategery (as it were) for everyone, except Mr. Fairfax.

In the cases of Governor Northam, Attorney General Herring, and Senator Norment, all these incidents were decades ago. In my opinion, which as we all know is not worth a hill of beans in this crazy world, all three of these men have a long record of associations and public service that do not show signs of persistent or lingering racism. Some may choose to point out that a campaign flyer for the (eventually winning) Democratic ticket that was circulated in Southwestern Virginia only showed Mr. Northam and Mr. Herring, both of whom are white. It conspicuously omitted Mr. Fairfax who is black. It was said at the time that this was to help the ticket in an area of the state where it was believed that some whites would not vote for a black man. It is my belief that someone responsible for the printing of that flyer did make that calculation. I don’t believe that Mr. Northam, Herring, or Fairfax had any personal involvment with it. And it is interesting to note that Mr. Norment, while a student at VMI, advocated the full integration of VMI - an unpopular stance even in 1968. So, once again, I feel you have a long public record for these three men that doesn’t support they are racists. I don’t feel that this long record is outweighed by self-evidently awful behavior decades ago. Others may disagree.

I suppose my position comes down to when is long enough? If Governor Northam, while he was a state senator, went to a party in blackface I would sing a different tune. I suppose I might sing a different tune if he did so during his time as a doctor in private practice. And while I fully admit that a man in medical school should know better, it was a long time ago and he doesn’t seem to be “that guy” any more. This position also goes for Herring and Norment.

This is an unsatisfying position for many true believers out there. Both of the Left and the Right. But it is where I am on this.

Sadly, the allegations made against Mr. Fairfax are more troubling and may require his resignation. I say may because they are, at this point, allegations. Nothing is proven to any threshold of evidence. There does need to be an investigation. But even that is troubling. The General Assembly of Virginia isn’t the type of body that does investigations. Should the Attorney General’s Office do an investigation? Should it be left to the authorities in Massachusetts (site of the Democratic Convention) or North Carolina (for Duke)? I don’t have an answer for that. My inclination would be for the General Assembly to set up a special commission of Senators and Delegates (in equal number from both parties) with the authority to hire investigator - or use State Police investigators - to conduct an official inquiry. But I’ll be honest, I’ll have to re-read the State Constitution because I’m not sure the General Assembly even has the authority to do this. (NB: They probably do in that they can make all sorts of rules for their own behavior. But it is possible that they may have to write a special law to do this, and the legislature is part-time and their session is winding down. To make a law would be an extraordinary task that might require the Governor to sign off on it - which would be awkward to say the least.)

If there is an investigation, what should be the threshold for action? If the Kavanaugh Hearings over the summer show us anything in this matter they show that there is no level of evidence with a widespread acceptance for action. Beyond a reasonable doubt, the threshold for criminal convictions, seems too high. Clear and convincing evidence may also be too high. But is a basic preponderance of evidence too low? (NB: For clarity, beyond a reasonable doubt is 99% sure, clear and convincing is 75% sure, preponderance is 51% sure.) For myself, I think that if you are going to work to get an elected official ousted from his position for things done while not in office you probably need to be at least 75% sure.

For those out there that think impeachment of one (or all) of the three top elected officials is the way to go, that door should be closed. Closed for two reasons. The Constitution of Virginia clearly defines impeachable offenses and they all involve actions taken while in office. Secondly, a Republican majority legislature is not inclined, for obvious political reasons, to go down that path.

So what then? Well… I think that Northam weathers the storm but is a shadow of what he could have been in the last two years of his term. Since Governors in Virginia cannot serve consecutive terms and Northam never seemed to aspire to other offices in Virginia or with the Federal Government, he could just wait it out. He will likely serve out his remaining two years and retire from office and return to the (beautiful) Eastern Shore of Virginia and go back to private medical practice.

Fairfax and Herring are the wild cards here. Both men want to be Governor. In fact, Herring “waited” last time to let Northam run for Governor while he ran for a second term as Attorney General. Fairfax is also an ambitious man. It looked like he was going to give Herring his “turn” to run for Governor, then run himself. I don’t know what happens to either of them now. I don’t see how either man fends off any sort of primary challenge from another Democrat. That is going to be the more interesting thing to look at as time passes.

All in all, I’m sad for my state. This is the type of news no one wants…

Carry on.

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