What Virginia scandal could say about Democrats’ future

Why We Wrote This

The Democratic strategy in 2020 leans heavily on those outraged by President Trump’s views on racial and gender issues. That makes Virginia a litmus test for what the party thinks it can forgive – and what it can’t.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters/File
Then-Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (c.) celebrates with Lt. Gov.-elect Justin Fairfax (l.) and Attorney General Mark Herring at Mr. Northam’s election night rally in Fairfax, Va., in November 2017.

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The Democratic Party’s metamorphosis ahead of the 2020 elections has reached a crossroads in Virginia. The governor and attorney general have admitted to wearing blackface decades ago, and the lieutenant governor is facing accusations of sexual assault.

For a party seeking to energize voters outraged by President Trump’s stance on racial and gender issues, do such transgressions cut too deep? Or does it matter that the incidents of racism are in the past and Gov. Ralph Northam has since established a record of supporting core Democratic causes? The answer will echo beyond Virginia, further defining the identity of the party seeking to unseat Mr. Trump.

But Virginia offers a window into the struggle. The message that emerges is one that has defined politics in recent years: a demand for authenticity and honesty. One community activist in Richmond says it would have made such a difference if Governor Northam had owned up to his ignorance or prejudice and given a better account of how his views have changed. “He could have done that in a very powerful way.”

Joshua Cole has fond memories of Gov. Ralph Northam (D) of Virginia.

Back in 2016, when Mr. Cole was an assistant at the statehouse clerk’s office and Mr. Northam was a state senator, Northam “remembered my name immediately,” Cole says. “He would talk to me every day.”

A year later, when Cole decided to run for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, he was happy to support Northam′s own campaign for governor by knocking on doors, rallying supporters, and actually voting for Northam. Though he lost his own race, Cole was thrilled when Northam was elected governor.

Now Cole is president of the Stafford County branch of the NAACP, and he says he doesn’t believe Northam is racist, despite a photo on the governor’s 1984 yearbook page that shows one person, ostensibly in costume, in Ku Klux Klan robes and another wearing blackface. But he still thinks Northam should resign.

In the space between those two viewpoints is the challenge facing the Democratic Party in the age of President Trump.

Since the racist photo surfaced, other scandals have followed here. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is facing two allegations of sexual assault, and state Attorney General Mark Herring has confessed to wearing blackface as a teenager for a rapper costume.

For a party determined to energize voters outraged by Mr. Trump’s handling of racial and gender issues, these transgressions cut deep. The sexual assault allegations, if true, would be a violent crime, but anything that smacks of racism or sexual misconduct is devastating.

Yet when do past mistakes – which are often just a Google search away – justify ending a career? Some in the party worry that they are potentially losing another leader who has generally fought hard for the liberal cause.

In that way, Northam’s resignation is really about the identity of the Democratic Party. On one side are those who say Democrats have started on a slippery slope, risking alienating moderates and weakening the party. Others say the only way to earn voters’ trust is making sure leaders are held to a moral standard in line with modern Democratic values.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Joshua Cole shares his thoughts about Virginia politics at a cafe in Richmond, Va., Feb. 6. Mr. Cole, president of the Stafford County NAACP and a Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates, is among those calling for Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to resign after a far-right website published a racist photo from the governor's 1984 medical school yearbook page.

Conversations with black and white voters in Virginia who have previously supported Northam show this split, with views varying regardless of race. But they also point to something deeper. What most hurts Cole is not necessarily the photo itself, but how the governor handled the situation. When the news first broke, Northam apologized for the “clearly racist” photo. The next day he backtracked, saying he wasn’t actually in the picture. Then he admitted to having once worn blackface to dress up as Michael Jackson in a dance competition.

What Cole wanted was honesty and accountability.

“As a black person who grew up here in Virginia ... it didn’t satisfy me,” he says. Northam had plenty of chances to come clean during the campaign, he says, when the debate over the symbolism of Confederate battle flags and monuments was a major talking point.

“To me, that would have been a prime opportunity [for him] to say, ‘And I know, because I’ve been through this. This is what I’ve done,’ ” Cole says.

That idea runs through many conversations.

Ladelle McWhorter, state chair of the community advocacy group Virginia Organizing, grew up in Alabama and remembers what it was like when the Klan was active.

“White people in the South knew better than that,” she says, recalling the discomfort she felt seeing fellow white Alabamians don the robes of the Klan. “You knew what those symbols meant, and if you deployed them it was for a reason. And if you challenged them or at least avoided them, that was for a reason, too.”

She voted for Northam and says it would have made such a difference if he’d acknowledged his ignorance or prejudice and given a better account of how his views had changed.

“He could have done that in a very powerful way,” says Professor McWhorter, who teaches on gender and sexuality at the University of Richmond.

Down the hall from McWhorter’s university office, Robin Mundle taps away at her computer keyboard. When the administrative assistant first saw the photo of Northam, she didn’t believe it was real, she says. Even now, she doesn’t think Northam should be forced to step down.

People are products of their time, Ms. Mundle says. Owning slaves and having an affair hasn’t stopped Thomas Jefferson – a Virginian – from being revered in American history. And while she’s not proud of the statues of Confederate veterans, Mundle understands why they still stand.

“I’m not saying what Northam did was right. I was very disappointed in him and I still am,” Mundle says. “He has to eat a lot of humble pie. But I don’t think he should resign over this.”

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
A woman walks down the steps of the Virginia State Capitol building in Richmond, Va., Feb. 6. For the past week, Virginia leadership has battled a series of scandals that began when a far-right website published a racist photo from the Gov. Ralph Northam's (D) 1984 medical school yearbook page.

Downtown, across the street from the statehouse, Lewis Holley mans the reception desk at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The retired federal worker is also willing to give Northam the benefit of the doubt. Mr. Holley says his age has helped him see how values change over time, how what used to be OK can become unacceptable.

“If you look hard enough you’ll find something against anybody and everybody,” he says. “ I don’t think we should rush to judgment.”

Others calling for Northam to stay have taken the argument further, saying this is the perfect moment for hard conversations about race and history.

Republican state Sen. Richard Stuart, who worked with Northam in the senate, says the governor is a man of honor and integrity and deserves the chance to work through his mistake. “So many people, if they are accused of racism … are afraid to have that discussion,” he says. But “with any tough subject, you’ve got to be willing to talk about it.”

“If he resigns, we’ll never hear from Ralph Northam again,” adds Herb Jones, a Democratic candidate for state Senate. “This is an opportunity to move this state and this country forward. The last thing he needs to do is quit.”

And there’s a sense that outrage and punishment come too swiftly, alienating crucial voters who feel disoriented by rapid cultural change.

“We do get outraged pretty fast, and many times it’s unjustified,” says Cole, the Stafford County NAACP president. “So for those who are saying, ‘Be cautious,’ I hear you.”

But if the Democratic Party wants to stand for inclusivity and differentiate itself from its opponents it needs to hold leadership to the highest standards, Cole adds.

Besides, Northam doesn’t need to be governor to do good. “You can still be a great community leader as a private citizen,” Cole says. “Get out there and raise some money for some of these African-American communities. Keep staying in the light.”

“What people are looking for in leaders is moral transparency,” adds Cornell William Brooks, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass., and a former NAACP president who was born and raised in the South. “This is a moment for us to come to grips to the fact that we are not the country we should be. But we have the moral agency to be the country we aspire to be.”

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