UPDATE, February 4, 5:30 p.m.: This weekend, a report surfaced accusing Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax of sexual assault in 2004. Fairfax released a statement last night vehemently denying the charge and saying that the Washington Post looked into the same charge in 2017, could not corroborate it, and decided not to publish a story on it. Today, Fairfax told reporters in Virginia that he believes the Northam campaign was behind the release of this attack.
It is by now no secret that Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is under pressure to resign because of a racist photo that surfaced last week in which Northam was implicated. If he resigns, he will be replaced by Democratic Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is Black. But according to at least one leader in the Black community, some of Northam’s aides and supporters appear to have launched what amounts to a whisper campaign to undermine Fairfax even before Northam has resigned.
A photo from Northam’s 1984 personal medical school yearbook page circulated last week showing two people, one in blackface and the other in full Ku Klux Klan garb. The photos on each student’s page were self selected and some of Northam’s acquaintances expressed surprise it had taken this long for the photo to be discovered.
Northam first tried to take responsibility for the photo, apologizing for his actions without saying which of the two racist costumes he had been wearing. He came back the next day to declare he actually was not one of the people featured in that photo, but that he had in fact worn blackface in the past. This came out at a press conference that was easily one of the most bizarre I have seen in my entire career, and during which I felt Northam was trying to take a page from the GOP by gaslighting all of us.
This has been a stunning turn of events. Northam had been a generally well-liked governor who has promoted many important initiatives, including fighting to expand Medicaid, to restore voting rights to felons, and to expand access to abortion care, all of which are important to people throughout the state, but also are critical to improving the health and well being of low-income populations and communities of color.
Then came the photo.
Even before the press conference, a number of editorials (including one by Rewire.News) and progressive groups called on Northam to resign. Afterward, those calls only grew louder and more universal, including presidential candidates and leadership of the Democratic Party. To widespread astonishment, he refused to step down. In fact, according to the Washington Post, he spent Saturday night calling “old friends and colleagues” saying he intended to “stay and fight.” Then an unscheduled senior cabinet meeting—in which Fairfax was not included—was called on Sunday night so Northam could weigh his options. It ended with no immediate change in Northam’s decision, although it appears, according to the Post‘s reporting, that First Lady Pam Northam is urging him to remain in office.
Quentin James, co-founder of Collective PAC—a political action committee working to elect Black candidates on the local, state, and federal levels—is among those who have called for Northam’s resignation. Now, James said, the Northam camp appears to have launched a whisper campaign to undermine Fairfax.
“We’ve learned through various sources that Governor Northam’s team and advisors have now decided to start attacking Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax by spreading lies to reporters and state leaders in an attempt to quell support for the Lt. Governor as Governor Northam’s impending successor should he resign,” James said in a statement to reporters. “This pathetic method of attack, along with the racist photos released on Friday are entirely beneath the office of the governor and exemplify yet another reason why Governor Northam is no longer fit to serve the great people in Virginia.”
In a phone interview Sunday afternoon, James told me that he and his colleagues had been contacted by reporters who told them that a number of Northam’s aides are speaking with the press and with Democratic leaders across the state “to sow uncertainty about Fairfax and his leadership ability. They are questioning his age, you know, questioning if he’s ready,” James said.
James said these comments are not coming directly from Northam, but members of his team. I reached out to Northam’s communications team to ask for comment on these assertions, but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.
If true, Northam’s team is making an already bad situation that much worse.
“So there was this image 35 years ago that is painful and racist and all that,” James said about the situation. “But these new attacks are very much similar to what we were hearing from [Jill Vogel], Justin’s Republican opponent in the race for lieutenant governor.”
During that race, James noted, Vogel asserted that Fairfax “didn’t have the knowledge to speak intelligently about certain issues. This is the the embodiment of racism. It’s a racist dog whistle.” In other words, James continued, “it’s not so much that someone’s going to dress in Blackface now or wear a Klan robe,” but will instead use innuendo to suggest a Black man is incapable of governing the state. By floating rumors that Fairfax is not ready or not able to lead the state, James said, the Northam campaign is playing on those same racist tropes.
While the racist photo is from 1984, more recent actions have called into question Northam’s behavior in accepting people of color as his equals. E.W. Jackson, a Black Republican who ran against Northam for lieutenant governor in 2013, accused him of refusing to shake hands after a debate. “I offered my hand to him twice,” Jackson said, “and he categorically refused, in fact he acted like I was invisible.”
In 2017, white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in part to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. During the “march,” a violent white supremacist killed anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer and injured others. Immediately afterward, Northam said he supported the removal of Confederate statues throughout the state, but later reversed course, saying their removal should be left up to localities to decide.
And during the gubernatorial race, Northam’s campaign left Fairfax, who was on the same ticket, off of some campaign literature. At the time, James, speaking to the Washington Post, said the omission “…reek[ed] of subtle racism, if not a tone deafness about how we are going to win in November. Leaving Justin Fairfax off . . . even if it’s only for a small universe of union members, still sends the wrong message.”
Black people make up nearly 20 percent of Virginia’s population, and Black voters were instrumental in giving Northam a victory in the 2017 governor’s race. In interviews with a wide range of people in Virginia’s Black community, the Washington Post found mixed feelings about Northam after release of the photo, with some suggesting they might be willing to forgive this incident and others voicing a sense of betrayal. Black Democratic leaders at the state and national level have, however, been virtually united in their calls on Northam to resign, as have Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, Virginia Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and former governor Terry McAuliffe.
Despite Northam’s many positive contributions to the state, he must resign because at this juncture this is not only about Virginia but about the entire country. We are facing a massive resurgence of blatant, open, even proud racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and white supremacist activity. Hate-based violence is on the rise. While racism has never been and may never be completely eliminated in the United States, the degree to which it flourishes or is diminished depends in part on whether and how leaders themselves promote or stand against hatred, and whether and how at least one political party can be seen as fighting vociferously against any manifestations of racism and other forms of bigotry and intolerance.
We now have outright racists, not to mention deeply corrupt people, at the highest levels of the government and a president who is openly racist. Irrespective of his apology, Northam has been compromised by, first, not surfacing this photo himself a long time ago, and second, by engaging what I can only reiterate was an attempt at gaslighting.
Northam did not come across as sincere, nor did he seem to understand at any deeper level why his behavior was so problematic. And he still does not seem to be grappling with his own racism or that which pervades the past and present of the state of Virginia, once the capital of the confederacy and a center of the slave trade. Whoever Ralph Northam is today, his continued presence as governor of Virginia would undermine efforts to fight racism in the Republican Party and more generally.
The most effective step Northam could take toward “healing” and “fighting” for Virginia is to step aside and allow Justin Fairfax—who is not only more than capable of leading but also popular—to take charge. With critical national elections that will decide the fate of this country for decades to come not far off, we can’t afford to have a racist in the house … at least not our house.