Exit or grace for Virginia's governor?

The case of Gov. Ralph Northam and his past racist acts should compel the political parties to explore ways of justice that bring healing for victims, society, and the perpetrator.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pauses during a news conference in Richmond, Va., Feb. 2.

Just eight months ago, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) of Virginia signed two bills that curb the state’s common practice of suspending or expelling unruly students in public schools. The new laws were a blow to a zero tolerance policy toward bad behavior. They also nudged some schools to experiment with “restorative justice.” That practice allows children a chance to show contrition about misdeeds and “restore” relationships with victims and the school. In cases of true remorse, discipline is balanced with mercy.

“There is power in every child,” the governor said at the signing. “We want to keep our children in school.”

Now, in what may seem like irony, the governor faces his own case of possible discipline – being forced to resign – after admitting he once blackened his face to impersonate Michael Jackson. He is also accused of dissembling after first admitting and then denying that he was one of two people in a 1984 photo that showed one in blackface and one wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. His apologies have largely fallen flat.

Mr. Northam’s harshest critics in the Democratic Party insist on zero tolerance toward politicians with any racist behavior in their past. A similar zero tolerance also seems to apply to sexual misdeeds. Northam’s official successor – Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax – faces similar heat after fresh accusations from a woman claiming he sexually assaulted her in 2004.

The opportunity for the embattled governor to achieve redemption and stay in office may be over. Events are still unfolding. But his situation should not be easily dismissed without a lengthy public discussion about whether something like restorative justice can ever regularly apply to those holding public office. The practice is gaining ground in both schools and the criminal justice system, although so far with mixed results. Why not try it in politics?

Both parties should debate possible pathways toward granting grace to leaders who have seen the error of their ways. Sometimes a “restored” politician who has earned forgiveness can do wonders; Lyndon Johnson, a former segregationist, is hailed as a champion of civil rights. In addition, the practice might encourage more politicians to fess up about past misdeeds, knowing that any retribution might be balanced with compassion.

At the same time, the political parties need to insist on another and necessary aspect of justice: deterrence. In certain cases, an offending leader must be punished to set an example and send a message on racial wrongdoing and other social ills. In certain cases, politicians who show moral responsibility by accepting harsh treatment may be one step closer to personal redemption even if they cannot keep their job. It may allow them to heal ties and make amends with those they harmed. Justice can be both individual and collective, both punitive and redemptive.

To paraphrase the governor’s own words last year, there is power in every politician. It is a power to reflect on misbehavior that harms others and to accept good as the norm for everyone. It is the power to put things right so one can be in the right. It is the power to accept the truth so one can accept grace.

Perhaps when it comes time for each party to rewrite its policy platforms, restorative justice can be included as part of those platforms. Voters might be wowed. Virtue can be rewarding.

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