Virginia leadership major disappointment to voters

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GRAPHIC BY SARAH BRADY / THE FLAT HAT
I urge whoever is reading this to take a deep breath and determine if they can smell anything particularly rank in the air. Given the chaos of the previous two weeks, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re able to discern a whiff of smoke and ash from 52 miles away. The figurative scent engulfing your nostrils right now is the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, as the political hierarchy of our beloved state comes crumbling down in an incredible spectacle of shame and embarrassment.

Since the beginning of February, the commonwealth of Virginia’s three top elected officials have become embroiled in scandals, all of which sample broader national discussions about misogyny and racism. The revelation that Gov. Ralph Northam wore partial blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume in the 1980s, coupled with the troubling discovery of his appallingly offensive yearbook page in graduate school, has severely undermined his governing credibility. Furthermore, his refusal to step aside is a severe moral failing and reveals his prioritization of personal interests over the demands of his constituents.

However, even if Gov. Northam were to step aside, Virginia’s options for progressive governance remain woefully sparse and imperfect. Vanessa Tyson, a professor at Scripps College in Claremont, California, alleged Feb. 3 that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax sexually assaulted her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Fairfax responded by unequivocally denying claims of sexual assault while simultaneously acknowledging his sexual encounter with Tyson. Since then, a second woman, Meredith Watson, has come forward alleging Fairfax of assault while he was an undergraduate at Duke University.

Some commentators argue that the timing of these claims is spurious. Rumors immediately floated that Gov. Northam orchestrated the allegations in a plot to discredit Fairfax as an heir apparent. While I do not doubt that it would be an excellent subplot for a “House of Cards – Richmond” reboot, these theories are idiotic. Tyson came forward because her assaulter appeared poised to become governor, and she did the commonwealth a great service by informing us of Lt. Gov. Fairfax’s character when we had insufficient time to do so ourselves. I afford Tyson the same trust that I gave to Christine Blasey Ford last autumn — Lt. Gov. Fairfax should resign.

Next in line is Attorney General Mark Herring, who announced Feb. 6 that he too wore blackface in the 1980s. While I commend Attorney General Herring for addressing his misdeeds with genuine remorse instead of scornful indignation, I sincerely question his ability to legally advocate for Virginia’s vulnerable communities with such paralyzingly poor judgment.

If all three men suffer the consequences of their actions head on, it remains entirely plausible that Virginia will soon enter an unfamiliar terrain of executive vacancies. Should Gov. Northam abdicate the governorship, Lt. Gov. Fairfax and Attorney General Herring are theoretically capable of becoming chief executive. If they also resign, Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Vox, a Republican, will be elevated to the state’s top office.

Virginians voted overwhelmingly for progressivism in November 2017, yet now face the very real possibility of conservative governance until Northam’s term expires in January 2022. As a liberal who eagerly cast my first-ever ballot for a straight Democratic ticket 15 months ago, I am sorely disappointed in (and embarrassed by) my choices. However, worst of all is that the people Gov. Northam, Lt. Gov, Fairfax and Attorney General Herring swore to protect stand to lose the most from a potential era of Republican government. That fact, coupled with the shock and embarrassment of their actions, makes for a startling era of Virginian politics.

Email Ethan Brown at

ewbrown@email.wm.edu.