“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” John 8:7
It seems impossible that it was just eight days ago that a firestorm of political “scandal” broke out in the tinder-dry undergrowth of sanctimony in Richmond, Virginia. Governor Ralph Northam (D) was revealed to have included a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page (Northam is an M. D. with a practice in pediatric neurology) showing two costumed people, one in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood: the ultimate Odd Couple. There were also pix of a young Northam in a cowboy hat, and another in front of a “Dukes of Hazard” style muscle car. Not too surprising for one raised and educated in east Virginia. The revelation was made on a far-right political website related to Breitbart, the organization to which former Trump advisor Steve Bannon is connected.
Instantly the calls began for the governor to resign on the spot. Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Virginia Senators Kaine and Warner, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, Virginia Representatives from many districts, including veteran Gerry Connolly (11th District) and newbie Jennifer Wexton (10th District), the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and countless others. All of them progressive, nearly all of them Democrats. It was an avalanche. My pastor had to wait until Sunday morning to add to the list, but made it very clear that while working with Northam in the cause of social justice had been most constructive, we’d need to move on to work with his successor once he was gone. The rationale always came down to the “good of the party” or the “good of the state.” In the mighty cacophony of righteous moral indignation, barely a Republican voice was heard. The progressives drowned them out.
But as we all know, what the “good of the party” is became much more complicated less than 48 hours later, when the same hyper-conservative website revealed that Lieutenant Governor, and now Governor-in-waiting, Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by a woman stating she was the victim. Vanessa Tyson said he forced her to perform a non-consensual sex act in 2004. Interestingly, the cacophony this time was less loud. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which had called for Northam’s ouster in about three nanoseconds, hemmed and hawed for several days about Fairfax (an African American) and finally said there should be a complete investigation of the charge made by Tyson. Jennifer Wexton stated that she believed Tyson, evidently based not on an investigation of any kind but solely on the fact that Tyson is female.
It seemed inevitable that Governor Northam would have to resign, once every active Democratic voice in the nation had demanded that he needed to do so for the party’s good, since he had lost the ability to rule effectively. Now the first man in the line of succession, Justin Fairfax, was also a good way toward being DQ’d. The far-right website had played the Democrats like a fine violin. They used the same tactic that football teams use against an overly-aggressive defensive opponent. The offense fakes a play to create the illusion that the ball is going to a certain spot. When all the charging defenders converge on that spot, the offense runs the real play in the areas vacated by the fooled defenders. In this case, the far right got universal Democratic condemnation of Northam based on a tasteless and degrading image generated a third of a century ago. (When Connolly was asked if that one episode erased an adult lifetime of excellent public service he said “no” and went on to explain in detail why Northam need to resign anyway.) Then the far right implicated Justin Fairfax not in a tasteless and insensitive image, but in a criminal act. How could anybody who had insisted that Northam go not insist even more strongly that Fairfax also resign?
As if that weren’t enough, Mark Herring, the same State Attorney General who proclaimed Northam had to resign, admitted two days after the Fairfax accusation that he too had put on blackface as a college undergrad in 1980 to imitate a rapper in a dance contest (Northam confessed to using blackface to imitate Michael Jackson while “moonwalking.” At least he didn’t need a very heavy layer.) Herring is the second in the line of succession, behind Fairfax. The next in line after Herring is a Republican. The situation is still very fluid. Governor Northam has apparently concluded he will not resign any time soon. A second woman, Meredith Watson, has accused Fairfax of rape while both were undergraduates at Duke in 2000. Fairfax has denied both allegations. After the second accusation, the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus for the first time has called for Fairfax to resign. The logic escapes me. So there’s some chance that the Commonwealth of Virginia will be governed by a Republican until 2021. There’s also some chance Northam will hang in there. So far only one Republican outside the state that I know of has called for Northam to resign, namely moderate Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland. Joe Lieberman (D?, CT) has stated that Northam need not resign, which in my mind is the strongest argument why he should do so.
So what do we conclude from this fiasco? I think the Democrats need to recalibrate their responses and standards in matters of ethical conduct. The original response to Northam was so shrill and so absolute, just as Breitbart thought it would be, that it risks a far greater calamity than one Democratic governor resigning; it risks losing dominant Democratic influence in Virginia now and in the future. The degree of self-righteous sanctimoniousness in judging others needs review. People who should know a whole lot better came off sounding like the foul-tempered, furious Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. “Off with his head” cannot be the first and only judgment, regardless of the offense. There needs to be perspective and most importantly a way forward, a process of reconciliation and healing, in cases of insensitivity. Also, Democrats need to reflect on what being a “party” means. It surely should include the idea of elected leaders supporting one another, of having one another’s backs, of assuming that investigation, evaluation, reflection, and sound judgment should be practiced in all instances of apparent malfeasance. Governor Northam must be thinking “with friends like this, who need enemies”? And in fact, those who wish Northam no good have been able simply to keep silent while the delusional “circular firing squad” of friends did its work.
As a Democrat, I am disgusted with the state party’s moral arrogance in this fiasco. I made a pledge to contribute to the state party, which I will rescind. I will not vote for state-level Democrats in the next two election cycles, instead saving my contributions and votes for promising Independent and third-party causes. I don’t want either my money or my electoral support going to people who behave this way. If they had been present when the woman was taken in adultery (John 8), they’d have stoned her to death despite Jesus’ admonition, because they believe they have no sin. At least the scholars and Pharisees who were there had consciences.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2019.