It’s a story of blackface, yearbook photos, a Michael Jackson dance competition, and a sexual assault allegation.
Three of Virginia’s top statewide elected officials are wrapped in a tornado of controversy that has also served as a major hit to the Democratic Party.
It all began Feb. 1 when far-right website Big League Politics published a photo from Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook in 1984 with a photo of a man wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood. The photo appeared on Northam’s page where photos of him were featured.
Northam first admitted that it was him in the photo but upon speaking to friends, family and classmates, he denied that it was. In a bizarre press conference last weekend, Northam admitted that he put black shoe polish on his face in 1984 to participate in a Michael Jackson dance contest.
“That photo and the racist and offensive attitudes it represents does not reflect that person I am today or the way that I have conducted myself as a soldier, a doctor and a public servant,” Northam said. “I am deeply sorry. I cannot change the decisions I made nor can I undo the harm my behavior caused then and today.”
A photo later surfaced from Northam’s military school yearbook where his nickname was “Coonman.” He said he didn’t know why his classmates called him that.
Reaction to Northam’s photo and explanation were swift, with elected officials from both sides of the aisle calling for him to step down. Democratic Party leaders, all eight Democratic presidential candidates and members of Congress and the U.S. Senate asked for Northam’s resignation citing that he could not effectively lead.
“Leaders are called to a higher standard, and the stain of racism should have no place in the halls of government,” California U.S. Sen. and Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris said on Twitter.
NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said Northam should step down because of the message it sends to Black voters.
“None of us are perfect. Many of us have had issues in the past,” Johnson said. “The most effective politician’s way to address this is to disclose early, acknowledge it and seek ways in which you can make amends to the community that’s offended and begin to work hard to heal any injuries that have been caused.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton headed to Virginia on Thursday to hold a televised discussion about the matter at the historically Black Virginia Union University. Sharpton said Northam’s explanations are not helping the situation.
“It was totally unacceptable that he did not resign, and he made it worse,” Sharpton said during a televised interview. “He said I didn’t do blackface here, I did blackface there.”
Meanwhile, the man poised to replace Northam if and when he does step down is Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is Black. However, Fairfax found himself in his own controversy when the same right-wing website that published the photo of Northam posted screenshots of a woman claiming Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention.
Fairfax has denied the claim saying the entire ordeal is a smear campaign and that the encounter was consensual. On Wednesday his accuser released a detailed statement about what happened.
“Does anybody think it’s any coincidence that on the eve of potentially my being elevated that that’s when this uncorroborated smear comes out?” Fairfax asked reporters during a news conference.
Adding to the mess, Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he wore blackface at a college party in 1980 when he was 19 in an effort to dress up like rapper Kurtis Blow. Herring would have been next in succession after Fairfax for governor.
“That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others,” Herring said in a statement released Wednesday.
Northam, Fairfax and Herring have yet to step down from their offices. If they do, State House Speaker and Republican Kirk Cox is next in line to be governor.