The last week has been unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Virginia state politics. All three of our statewide constitutional officers—the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general—have been embroiled in controversy.
I try not to jump to conclusions without having access to the facts. So for the past week I have been reading about and digesting these controversies and evaluating the available evidence. I have come to some conclusions about what needs to happen next.
On Friday, February 1, we learned from Big League Politics that Governor Ralph Northam’s (D-VA) page in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) yearbook included a racist photo. It showed two men: one in blackface, and one in a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) uniform. Additionally, in Northam’s undergraduate yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), one of his nicknames was listed as “coonman.”
It should go without saying that this kind of racist imagery has always been wrong. Perhaps it could have been excused as socially acceptable among whites in the south a decade or two earlier, but by 1984 everybody knew (or should have known) better. Only one year later, a black man—Douglas Wilder—won statewide election as lieutenant governor. Four years later he would become the first elected African American governor in U.S. history. It was not exactly the Jim Crow era.
On Friday evening, Northam issued a statement in which he said, “I am 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 his apology was apparently not enough. On the morning of Saturday, February 2, numerous politicians and political organizations began to call for Northam to resign.
At a somewhat bizarre press conference Saturday afternoon, Northam recanted. Since then, he has claimed that he is neither of the people in the photo, and strongly implied (without actually saying it) that the photo was erroneously included on his page by the yearbook staff. He also claimed that “coonman” was a name others had given him, not one he had chosen for himself.
In that same press conference, Northam did admit that he had once donned blackface at a party in 1984 in Texas. He dressed up as Michael Jackson. Supposedly, he even learned how to moonwalk.
If it hadn’t been for Northam’s admission on Friday evening that he was one of the men in the racist photo, I would have had no particular reason for doubting his claim that the photo was not of him and did not belong on his page. I know enough about yearbooks to know that they sometimes get screwed up. Sometimes badly. I can point out numerous errors in some of mine, including misspelled names, incorrect captions, and, yes, even photos on the wrong pages. Unless somebody could have proved otherwise, I would have given him the benefit of the doubt.
But he decided to first admit that he had done it, then deny it the next day. This cast a cloud of doubt over the whole thing, and put Northam in a position where he now needed to prove it wasn’t him . . . something that would otherwise have been accepted in the absence of contrary evidence. Northam seriously undermined his own credibility.
It has been one week. Northam has had time to gather and present evidence supporting his assertion that he was not in that photo and did not select it to be included on his yearbook page. He could present statements from yearbook staff about errors and disorganization. He could track down who actually appeared in the photo. He could offer anything more than a vague claim that it was a mistake . . . that would have at least bought him some time to more fully develop an explanation.
He has failed to do so, and now he is doubling-down on his plan to stay in office.
If the photo is indeed of Northam, or if he selected it for inclusion on his page, it is not some childhood indiscretion. I generally shy away from condemning people for things they do in their teenage years, but this is not a high school yearbook . . . this is a postgraduate medical school yearbook! At the time, Northam was in his mid-twenties.
If it were proved that Northam did not appear in the photo, and did not select it for inclusion on his yearbook page, then his moronic handling of the controversy—especially his admission, then reversal, then silence—shows exceptionally poor judgement and a lack of character.
Whether or not Northam is guilty of the original offense, he is guilty of lying about it to the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia. If he is not responsible for the photo, he was lying when he said he was. If he is responsible for it, he was lying when he said he wasn’t. Either way, his behavior has been unacceptable, and he has not made any effort to clear things up or restore his credibility.
Enough is enough. I call for Governor Northam to resign immediately. If he does not do so within one week, I call for the Virginia House of Delegates to impeach him under Article IV, Section 17, of the Constitution of Virginia.
Virginia’s constitution allows impeachment only for “offending against the Commonwealth by malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor,” so the photo itself is not the issue. It is Northam’s lies about it, and his stunningly incompetent handling of this crisis, that constitute an impeachable offense.
Lieutenant Governor Fairfax
On Sunday, February 3, Big League Politics released a new bombshell story with a claim that Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax (D-VA) had sexually assaulted Vanessa Tyson, who is now a political science professor at Stanford University. Tyson has since released a detailed statement with her allegations against Fairfax, which she claims occurred at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Tyson did not report the attack to police at the time that it occurred, which seriously undermines her credibility as an accuser. Crimes must be reported by adult victims within a reasonable amount of time after they occur . . . and when they aren’t, they become nearly impossible to prove.
But Fairfax, while vehemently denying that assault occurred, has admitted to having a consensual sexual encounter with Tyson at the 2004 convention. They are in agreement about many of the key details. This means that there is already more corroborating evidence of Tyson’s claim than there was in, say, the Kavanaugh case. In that case, there was no proof that the accuser and the accused had ever even been in the same place at the same time.
It must be noted that Tyson has shared her story privately with her friends and acquaintances over several years, and even took her accusation to the Washington Post about a year ago. The Post declined to run the story. They have shown no such reticence publishing much less credible claims levied against conservative politicians and nominees. The Post has a lot of explaining to do.
As we have been digesting this new political crisis, a second claimant against Fairfax surfaced. Meredith Watson claims that Fairfax raped her in 2000 when they were both undergraduate students at Duke University. It appears that Watson also failed to report the attack to police, which, as mentioned earlier, seriously undermines these kinds of claims. But Watson’s attorney claims he has “statements from former classmates corroborating that Ms. Watson immediately told friends that Mr. Fairfax had raped her.”
One of these classmates, Kaneedreck Adams, was interviewed by the Washington Post (which is apparently now interested in this story), and her statements do partially corroborate Watson’s claims. Adams lived near Watson on the Duke campus in 2000, and said that one day Watson came to her in tears. “She was upset. She told me she had been raped, and she named Justin.”
Fairfax responded to this new claim in a statement saying, “I deny this latest unsubstantiated allegation. It is demonstrably false. I have never forced myself on anyone ever.” It is unclear what he means by “demonstrably false,” and how or if he plans to demonstrate its falsity. In the aftermath of the two claims against him, multiple prominent politicians and political commentators have called for Fairfax to resign.
The claims against Fairfax are much more serious than those against Northam, but must also be much more carefully adjudicated. As a general rule, I apply the same rules that our criminal justice system applies: I will not condemn a politician unless I am convinced of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
With regard to Tyson’s accusation, though she and Fairfax both agree that there was a sexual encounter, it is impossible to judge whether that encounter was consensual with the evidence available at this time. It is her word against his. If Tyson can produce more corroborating evidence—a police report, friends who can testify that she reported the crime to them immediately after, or anything along those lines—I will reconsider.
With regard to Watson’s accusation, Fairfax has not admitted to ever having had a sexual encounter with her . . . but at least one person corroborates that Watson reported the alleged assault to her immediately after it occurred, and that she accused Fairfax. Watson’s lawyer claims there are others who can offer similar corroborative accounts. This is serious evidence that carries serious weight, and will be difficult for Fairfax to overcome.
In both cases, it is troubling that the accusers do not seem to have filed police reports. They were both adults at the time of the alleged assaults, and adult victims of serious crimes have a responsibility to themselves and others to report those crimes. In the best case, this would allow for the collection of physical evidence, witness statements, and more . . . and then, ideally, the prosecution and imprisonment of the perpetrators. Even in the worst case, with an incompetent or ineffective police response, there would still be a formal, documented record of the accusation. That would carry more weight than relying on the decades-old memories of friends.
But the lack of a police report does not mean that the assaults did not occur. It is depressingly common for victims to fail to report, especially in sexual assault cases. That needs to change. Society must demand that all serious crimes be reported. Regardless, both accusations are reasonably credible, and are supported by corroborating (if circumstantial) evidence. There are also similarities between the two claims, which is notable in and of itself, especially since both accusers’ stories have been consistent since before they knew one another existed.
It strains credulity to believe that this is all just coincidence, or a political hit job. The Washington Post sat on the first accusation for a year. It’s not like Tyson just popped-up out of nowhere (like another well-known recent accuser) when it appeared that some political points could be scored. Indeed, she tried to get a supposedly serious media outlet to look into it a long time ago—even though she and Fairfax are affiliated with the same political party.
I call for Lieutenant Governor Fairfax to resign immediately. If he does not do so within one week, I call for the Virginia House of Delegates to impeach him under Article IV, Section 17, of the Constitution of Virginia for lying about the events in question.
Additionally, I call upon law enforcement agencies in the locations where the assaults occurred to investigate these claims and, if appropriate, bring criminal charges against Fairfax.
Attorney General Herring
Possibly feeling left-out of the firestorm engulfing the Commonwealth’s two highest offices, Attorney General Mark Herring (D-VA) has also made some negative headlines in the last week. On Wednesday, February 6, Herring announced that he, too, had once worn blackface.
In his statement, he said that he and some friends dressed up as black rappers at a college party in 1980, when Herring was nineteen years old, and that as part of his costume he darkened his skin.
Although Herring should have known better, and probably should have publicized this earlier so we could digest and consider it when deciding whether or not to vote for him, I am not going to condemn him for a one-time, nonviolent indiscretion that he committed when he was a teen.
This revelation about Herring’s past is no reason to call for his resignation or impeachment.
(As discussed when I endorsed his opponent in 2017, there are possibly other, unrelated reasons to consider impeaching Herring. They are not the subject of this piece. It would also be appropriate to weigh this issue when considering whether to vote for Herring in the future.)