The dizzying string of revelations that have rocked Virginia politics and thrust the state into the national spotlight began with a debate about late-term abortion during a Jan. 28 committee hearing.
How that morphed into a scandal that jeopardizes the careers of the state’s top three elected officials serves as a case study in how quickly the political winds can shift at a time of deep polarization in the country.
Here’s how we got to the point where Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring – all Democrats – are being pressured to resign, which would elevate Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox to governor:
Jan. 28-Jan. 31
As Virginia Del. Kathy Tran makes a case for a bill she’s sponsoring, which would make it easier for women to get third-trimester abortions in the state, Republican lawmaker Todd Gilbert asks if the legislation would allow abortions up to the moment right before birth.
Tran says yes, and a clip of the exchange gets promoted by anti-abortionists and soon goes viral on social media, prompting a torrent of criticism of the first-term Democrat. Tran, a mother of four, later says she misspoke.
When Northam was asked about the bill on a Jan. 30 radio show, he tries to explain how the decision should be made between the mother and her provider, without governmental interference, but part of his response leaves the pediatric neurologist open to charges that he approves of infanticide.
These types of abortions, Northam said, are “done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s non-viable. So in this particular example, if a mother’s in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
The storm was just starting to form.
Friday, Feb. 1
A racist photo from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page, showing one person in blackface alongside another one wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit, is published by Big League Politics.
The far-right web site, which according to the Wall Street Journal is backed by Republican operatives, said a “concerned citizen’’ had shared the tip about the offensive photo after hearing Northam’s comments about late-term abortions.
In a statement, Northam says he’s one of the two persons in the photo, without specifying which one, and apologizes.
In an odd news conference in which he’s dissuaded from moonwalking by his wife, Northam says he actually does not appear in the photo in question, but admits he once darkened his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance contest.
The calls for Northam to resign intensify after that appearance, and he loses the support of much of the Democratic establishment. Both of the state’s U.S. senators – Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine – urge him to step aside, as do Herring and the Legislative Black Caucus.
Amid speculation that Fairfax would replace Northam and become the second African American governor in state history, Big League Politics drops another bombshell. Late in the day, the web site publishes a story with accusations that Fairfax sexually assaulted a woman in 2004.
Fairfax issues a denial of the accusations, noting that the accuser had reached out to the Washington Post before his inauguration in January 2018 and the newspaper had not run a story after supposedly finding “significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegations.”
The Post denies any such findings, saying its reporting could not corroborate either side’s story. The paper also provides details of the sexual encounter in question, which took place in Fairfax’s hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention and he said was consensual.
Attention turns to Fairfax as Northam tries to ride out the storm and return to his normal duties, signing a bill to provide $750 million in incentives for e-commerce juggernaut Amazon to establish its second headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
A third leading Democrat gets in trouble as Herring, who had called for Northam to step down, publicly acknowledges he wore blackface to look like a rapper during a party at the University of Virginia in 1980, when he was 19.
Profusely apologizing and saying the incident has haunted him for decades, Herring said he would consider resigning.
“I will say that from the bottom of my heart, I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation,” he said.
The outcry over Herring’s admission had only started to mount when college professor Vanessa Tyson comes out publicly with disturbing details of her encounter with Fairfax, accusing him of forcing her to perform oral sex and relaying the anguish she felt over the years because of the experience.
“After the assault, I suffered from both deep humiliation and shame,” she said in a statement.
Fairfax steadfastly maintains the encounter was consensual.
Democratic leaders, including Senators Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand – both presidential candidates – call for an investigation of Tyson’s allegations.
Meanwhile, a Republican gets embroiled in the scandal for the first time as the Virginian-Pilot newspaper runs a story saying state Sen. Thomas Norment oversaw the 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook, which included several racist photos and slurs against blacks and Asians.
Norment issues a statement denouncing the use of blackface and suggesting the revelation was politically motivated.
There’s plenty of that going around in embattled Virginia these days.