With Virginia's top three elected officials engulfed in scandal, fellow Democrats were rendered practically speechless, uncertain of how to thread their way through the racial and sexual allegations and the tangled political implications.
Gov. Ralph Northam's career was already teetering over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook when the crisis seemed to spiral completely out of control Wednesday. First, the state's attorney general acknowledged that he, too, put on blackface once, when he was a college student. Then a woman publicly accused the lieutenant governor of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago.
Everyone in Richmond, it seemed, was waiting Thursday for Virginia's Legislative Black Caucus to respond. The caucus has been calling for Northam's resignation over the past week but was silent about the latest developments.
"We've got a lot to digest," the group's chairman, Del. Lamont Bagby, said Wednesday.
The crisis threatens to bring down all three of the politicians, all of them Democrats. If Northam resigns, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax stands to become Virginia's second black governor. Attorney General Mark Herring is next in the line of succession, followed by House Speaker Kirk Cox, a conservative Republican.
Herring, who had been urging Northam to step down and was planning to run for governor in 2021, admitted wearing brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.
He apologized for his "callous" behavior and said the days ahead "will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve." The 57-year-old Herring came forward with his statement after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol. But he made no mention of any photo.
Then Vanessa Tyson, whose sexual assault allegations against Fairfax surfaced earlier this week, put out a detailed statement saying he forced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The Associated Press typically does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted, but the 42-year-old college professor from California issued the statement in her name.
Fairfax has repeatedly denied her allegations, saying that the encounter was consensual and that he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear.
At the Capitol, lawmakers were dumbstruck over Wednesday's fast-moving developments, with Democratic Sen. Barbara Favola saying, "I have to take a breath and think about this." GOP House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said it would be "reckless" to comment. "There's just too much flying around," he said.
Black lawmakers' response could set the tone for whether fellow Democrats demand the resignation of the lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas said several people were crying as Herring apologized to black lawmakers Wednesday morning before issuing his public statement.
Cox called the allegations against Fairfax "extremely serious" and said they need a "full airing of facts." The Republican leader also urged Herring to "adhere to the standard he has set for others," a nod to Herring's previous call that Northam resign.
On Thursday, a few hundred anti-abortion demonstrators gathered at the Capitol to renew their criticism of Northam for backing a bill loosening restrictions on late-term abortions. One carried a sign referring to Northam as "Gov Doctor Death."
And in a nod to the scandals facing the Democrats, GOP Sen. Amanda Chase said while leading the crowd in prayer: "The actions that have been taken by our leadership have hurt the very heart of God."
Democrats have expressed fear that the uproar over the governor could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated Virginia legislature this year after making big gains in 2017.
At the same time, the Democrats nationally have taken a hard line against misconduct in their ranks because women and minorities are a vital part of their base and they want to be able to criticize President Donald Trump's behavior without looking hypocritical.
Trump accused Democrats on Thursday of a political double-standard, tweeting: "If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken."
Northam has come under pressure from nearly the entire Democratic establishment to resign after the discovery of a photo on his yearbook profile page of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, then denied it, but acknowledged putting shoe polish on his face for a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.
Herring came down hard on Northam when the yearbook photo surfaced, condemning it as "indefensible," and "profoundly offensive." He said it was no longer possible for Northam to lead the state.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus released the following statement Thursday:
The events of the past week in the Commonwealth of Virginia have disturbed us all, and recall a time when bigotry, intolerance, and lack of respect for all our residents were accepted in the corridors of power. We recognize that these recent findings and allegations have ripped open wounds for the African American community and sexual assault survivors across the country and we empathize with them all. We want to emphasize as the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus stands with the constituents of our great Commonwealth in declaring that bigotry and mistreatment of any of our residents are unacceptable.
The issues in our current political leadership are not partisan issues. They are issues of basic decency, civil rights and justice for all parties involved. The Caucus recognizes that the admitted past use of blackface by Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, and the sexual assault allegations regarding Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax are all weighted equally in matter of importance to our Commonwealth and its leadership. Our responses to each, however, must be based on their individual facts and circumstances.
We called for Governor Northam’s resignation sharply and swiftly because all of the facts were before us immediately. That is still our position.
It’s been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The flipside of that coin is that mockery is the greatest form of insult. Blackface is mockery, and therefore it is an insult. An insult used for entertainment, by those who aspire to political leadership is dangerous because it betrays a lack of compassion and a temperament of
untrustworthiness where black lives are concerned. This was as true in 1984 as it was in 1904, 1924 or 1954.
Every member of the Caucus and many of our colleagues in the Capitol were pained by the revelations of Gov. Northam’s and Attorney General Herring’s past behavior. Those actions showed a tremendous lack of judgment and compassion for Virginia’s black residents and unacceptable ignorance of some of our Commonwealth’s most historically painful chapters. While we appreciate the candor of Attorney General Herring’s disclosure, we await further action on his part to reassure the citizens of the Commonwealth of his fitness for leadership.
The Caucus also recognizes the need to address the troubling allegations leveled against Lt. Gov. Fairfax. Sexual assault is a very serious offense, and we believe that all allegations of sexual assault must be fully and thoroughly investigated by the appropriate agencies. We believe that victims deserve to have their claims taken seriously. And we believe that anyone accused of such a grievous act must receive the due process prescribed by the Constitution. We support, and we expect, justice to be meted out fairly for all involved in this situation and will continue to monitor it closely and act accordingly.
As we move forward, let us not forget the Commonwealth commemorates its 400 th Anniversary this year. We are mindful that Virginia is the birthplace of this country’s painful history that still haunts us today. The legacy of slavery, racism, and the Jim Crow era remains an albatross around the necks of African Americans. We can no longer hide behind a facade of unity, we must fiercely and intentionally combat the hatred of the past that still lives today. We stand united in calling out and renouncing all racist and offensive acts, no matter the political party of the perpetrator.