2019 Virginia political crisis

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Virginia officials
Governor Ralph Northam
Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax
Attorney General Mark Herring

The Virginia political crisis of 2019 occurred when all three of Virginia's statewide elected executive officials (all members of the Democratic Party) became engulfed in scandal over the course of one week in February 2019. All three (Governor Ralph Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring) were the consequently the subjects of nation-wide bipartisan calls for resignation or removal from office. The crisis started when a photo of Governor Ralph Northam's page in his 1984 medical school yearbook depicted an individual in blackface and an individual in a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam had sparked a national outcry two days earlier over comments interpreted by conservatives and pro-life groups as supporting infanticide. Amid widespread calls for Northam's resignation, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax had multiple sexual assault allegations raised against him dating to 2000 and 2004. Attorney General Mark Herring revealed shortly thereafter that he had also worn blackface while in college.

The issues raised together created a crisis in Virginia as all three statewide officials were engulfed in scandal over the span of a few days and the potential of all three resigning or being forced out of office became apparent.[1] It also forced Democrats to grapple with racial and sexual assault scandals within their own party.[2][3]


Given the racially charged nature of the scandals, national media focused attention on Virginia's complicated history with race.[4] Virginia had been a corner of the Atlantic slave trade triangle, and the Capital of the Confederacy. Its history has featured Monument Avenue, Massive Resistance,[5] and the first African American state governor in US history, Douglas Wilder.[6] More recently, Virginia voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and was the site of the Charlottesville rally in 2017.

Virginia has had two Democratic senators since 2008 and Democrats had controlled all three statewide offices since 2014. The 2017 elections had been contentious and close, leading to Democrats maintaining control of all three statewide offices while Republicans clung to a 51-49 majority in the Virginia House of Delegates and a 21-19 majority in the Virginia Senate.

Positions affected[edit]

Northam's 1981 VMI yearbook photograph showing the nickname, "Coonman"

The situation involved the position of the Governor of Virginia, as well as the two positions (Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General) that directly follow in the gubernatorial order of succession, with widespread bipartisan calls for resignations having the potential for a state constitutional crisis.[7][8][9][10][11][12]

Ralph Northam[edit]

On January 30, Northam had made controversial comments about abortion during a WTOP interview about the Repeal Act, where he stated that if a severely deformed or otherwise non-viable fetus was born after an unsuccessful abortion attempt, "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."[13] The comments sparked an outcry as conservative politicians and media figures characterized Northam's comments as promoting infanticide.[14] After the yearbook photo was publicized, many conservative media outlets compared the two controversies and described them as a "bad week" for the governor.[15][16]

On February 1, 2019, images from Northam's medical school yearbook were published on the right wing[17] website Big League Politics.[18] The photos showed an image of an unidentified person in blackface and an unidentified person in a Ku Klux Klan hood on Northam's page in the yearbook.[19][20][21] A spokesman for Eastern Virginia Medical School confirmed that the image appeared in its 1984 yearbook.[22] According to the Washington Post, the photo was sent as a tip to Big League Politics by one or more medical school classmates who were concerned about Northam's abortion comments.[23] Shortly after the news broke, Northam apologized for appearing in the photo[22] Separately, a 1981 yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) listed "Coonman" as one of Northam's nicknames, interpreted as a racial slur.[24] The following day, Northam held a press conference in which he reversed his stance and denied that he appeared in the 1984 photo, but did admit to having "darkened [his] face" with shoe polish as part of a Michael Jackson costume around the same time.[25] Northam said only two people at VMI had referred to him as "Coonman", and that he regretted its inclusion in the yearbook.[26] Reaction to the press conference was intensely negative and calls for Northam's resignation continued.[27] The 1984 yearbook photo also brought renewed attention to a 2013 video clip in which Northam appeared unwilling to shake hands with his African-American opponent for lieutenant governor, E. W. Jackson, after a debate, though it was possible Northam did not see Jackson extending his hand.[23]

A months-long investigation into the photo that appeared in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook could not conclusively determine who was in the photo or how the image ended up there. A team hired by EVMS released a 55-page report on May 22, 2019, saying: “We could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in the photograph.” McGuireWoods contacted over 80 people connected to the school, including five members of their yearbook staff at the time.[28]

Justin Fairfax[edit]

Fairfax was preparing for Northam to resign, even going so far as to notify family that as the next man in the line of succession he was about to replace Northam as governor,[29] when Big League Politics reported on February 3 that Fairfax had been accused by Vanessa C. Tyson, an associate professor at Scripps College and fellow at Stanford University, of sexual assault at a hotel at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.[30][31] Fairfax denied the accusation, saying his encounter with Tyson was consensual and the timing of the reports was intended to smear him as he was about to ascend to the governorship.[32] Fairfax also insinuated that supporters of Northam, or someone connected with Richmond mayor Levar Stoney, a potential political rival since both were speculated as possible Democratic candidates for governor in 2021, may have been behind the allegation going public.[33][34][35] A few days later, Tyson released a statement publicly detailing her allegations.[36][34] Tyson said she is a Democrat with no political agenda and felt compelled to release the statement because Fairfax "has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation."[37]

On February 8, a second woman, Meredith Watson, came forward with sexual assault allegations against Fairfax, alleging that he raped her[38] in a "premeditated and aggressive" attack in 2000 when both were undergraduate students at Duke University.[39] The second accusation led to a cascade of calls from fellow Democrats from Virginia and around the country for Fairfax to resign.[40] Delegate Patrick Hope, a Democrat, said he would initiate impeachment proceedings against Fairfax if he did not resign within three days, but backed off the threat amid concerns from fellow Democrat state legislators.[41]

Mark Herring[edit]

On February 6, Herring, who had already called on Northam to resign, issued a statement in which he admitted to wearing blackface himself as a 19-year-old University of Virginia student, saying he was trying to look like rapper Kurtis Blow at a party.[42] The scandal added to the tumult that now engulfed the entire executive branch of Virginia's government.[43] Herring's revelation led to a pause in the demands for resignation as Democrats and many Republicans were unsure of how to react to the expanding crisis.[43]

Response and demands for resignations[edit]

Immediate Response[edit]

Northam faced widespread calls for resignation, including from would-be 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and from Virginia's Democratic U.S. Senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Before facing scandals of their own, Herring issued a call for Northam to resign[44] and Fairfax called for Northam to "do what was best for the state".[45] According to Axios, a wide list of state and national politicians, activists, and public figures called for Northam's resignation. Among them was Representative Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who stated: "We now know what Ralph Northam did when he thought no one was watching. The person in that photo can’t be trusted to lead. Governor Northam must resign immediately." State leaders and organizations such as Representative Donald McEachin, Representative Scott Taylor, the ACLU of Virginia, and the Richmond Times Dispatch all called on Northam to resign, and this call transcended party lines as both the Virginia House Democrats and the Virginia GOP demanded resignation. Nationally, figures such as Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Tom Steyer, and Chuck Schumer all made statements admonishing Northam's actions and asking for an apology and a leave of his position. [46] In a joint statement, Senator Warner, Senator Kaine, and Representative Bobby Scott issued a joint statement including the assertion that "After [they] watched his press conference today, [they] called Governor Northam to tell him that [they] no longer believe[d] he can effectively serve as Governor of Virginia and that he must resign."[47]

Democrats' response to the allegations against Fairfax and Herring's admission was more subdued, testing whether Democrats would apply the same zero-tolerance standards they applied in other previous cases.[48] Some state politicians held off on calling for Herring's resignation, as they were concerned about the risk of losing Democratic control of the executive branch in Virginia.[49] US Democratic Virginia Representatives Don Beyer and Jennifer Wexton were vocal in their calls for Northam and Fairfax to resign and did not make a similar call for Herring's resignation. In a statement responding to questions about why they excluded Herring, Wexton stated that he "came forward proactively, is very regretful and contrite."[50]

Following the claims, Fairfax resigned as partner of the Richmond law firm Morrison and Foerster following a leave of absence.[51] He filed a $400 million lawsuit in early September 2019 against CBS for defamation over interviews with his accusers, which was later dismissed by a federal judge.[52][53] A lawsuit was also filed against Fairfax titled Judicial Watch et al. v Justin E. Fairfax et al. regarding the Freedom of Information Act after staff in Fairfax's office refused to disclose records to the group.[54]

After the first full week in February, Northam and Herring were both adamant in their refusal to resign, while Democratic Delegate Patrick Hope indicated he was initiating impeachment proceedings against Fairfax. This opened up the possibility that two white men accused of blackface would maintain their terms while an African American man would face impeachment and removal for unproven accusations.[55] Given the optics of this situation, many leaders in Virginia softened their stances on resignation for any of the three statewide elected officials.[56]

Line of succession[edit]

According to the Virginia Constitution, if the governor resigned, his lieutenant governor would replace him. If the lieutenant governor were unable to replace the governor, the attorney general would become governor. The Speaker of the House – who at the time of the scandals was Kirk Cox, a Republican – was fourth in the line of succession and would have become governor if all three had resigned or had been removed.[57] (Cox stated, "I have never been in blackface, unequivocal."[58])

In the immediate aftermath of the Northam yearbook story, speculation was rampant that Northam would resign; Fairfax even began making preparations to become governor.[29] Many Democrats were enthusiastic about the idea of Fairfax, who would be the state's second black governor, replacing Northam.[59][60] But the allegations against Fairfax and Herring's revelation gave Northam breathing room and caused Democrats to pause to ponder their next steps.[61] Democrats were "conscious that if all three executives had to step down at once," a Republican would become governor.[43]

Virginia's Constitution has no clear provision for replacing the lieutenant governor if Fairfax were to resign, potentially leading to a political fight over how to replace him, but a catch-all clause in the constitution governing filling vacancies would give the governor power to appoint a new lieutenant governor to serve until a special election would be held during the November general election to choose someone to serve the remainder of the term, which ends in January 2022.[62][58]

Other aspects[edit]

Then-Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican, was caught up in the scandal when it was reported that he was listed as managing editor of a 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook that featured racially charged language and photos of people in blackface.[63] Norment does not appear in any of the photos and issued a statement saying he condemned the use of blackface[63] and said his role was ensuring writers and photographers made their submissions on time and that he was "still culpable, but it is by association with a team that produced that yearbook with those photos".[64] Norment pointed out that page 236 of the same yearbook shows he supported the racial integration of VMI in 1968, and led an effort to enroll women there in 1997.[63]


  1. ^ State of Crisis: Scandal in Virginia (CBS)
  2. ^ ‘It’s a mess’: Race and gender fault lines in Virginia cripple Democrats (Politico)
  3. ^ Vozzella, Laura (March 23, 2019). "Virginia Republicans see chance to bounce back amid Democratic scandals". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 26, 2019.
  4. ^ Helber, Steve (February 7, 2019). "Blackface photo is a reminder of Virginia's racist history". Associated Press. NBC News. Retrieved February 11, 2019. RICHMOND, Va. — The discovery last week of a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam's 1984 medical school yearbook page has served as a glaring reminder that Virginia — a former bastion of slavery and white supremacy — continues to struggle with mindsets shaped by its turbulent racial history.
  5. ^ Hobson, Jeremy (February 7, 2019). "These Virginians Say The State's Blackface Controversy Is Disappointing But Not Surprising". WBUR. Retrieved February 11, 2019. Ayers: "Well as people may know, Virginia has been led by Democratic governors and senators and recently presidential electors for a while, and people have thought that Virginia is seceding from the South in some ways, you know. … So there's been a kind of amnesia in Virginia that we've forgotten that we were the largest state for enslaved population and that we had this history of segregation and massive resistance.
  6. ^ Geraghty, Jim (February 7, 2019). "The Virginia Blackface Scandal Is Only Getting Worse". National Review. Retrieved February 11, 2019. There’s no getting around the fact that for a long, long stretch, the legal, political, and cultural treatment of African-Americans in Virginia was appalling: The legacy of slavery; from June 1861 to April 1865 Richmond was capital of the Confederacy; no African-Americans were elected to the Virginia General Assembly from 1890 to 1968; counties instituted poll taxes and literacy tests; Davis v. Prince Edward County was one of five school segregation lawsuits folded into the case that became Brown v. Board of Education; for four decades the state’s politics were shaped by vehement segregationist Harry F. Byrd Sr. and the Byrd Organization; the state saw “Massive Resistance” to school desegregation, including Prince Edward County’s decision to close all public schools for five years rather than desegregate!... Still, it wasn’t that long after Northam and Herring were wearing blackface that Doug Wilder was (narrowly) elected governor in 1989, becoming the first African-American governor in U.S. history.
  7. ^ Blinder, Alan; Martin, Jonathan (February 7, 2019). "Virginia Political Crisis Grows for Democrats and Republicans". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 10, 2019.
  8. ^ "Blackface, assault allegations: How Virginia's political crisis unfolded". USA Today. Retrieved February 10, 2019.
  9. ^ Schwartzman, Paul (February 7, 2019). "Crisis Management 101: How Virginia's top three Democrats dug themselves deeper holes". The Washington Post.
  10. ^ "Political crisis in Virginia spreads to both parties - The Boston Globe". BostonGlobe.com. Retrieved February 10, 2019.
  11. ^ Martin, Jonathan; Blinder, Alan; Robertson, Campbell (February 9, 2019). "Justin Fairfax Puts Virginia Democrats in Bind on Impeachment". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 10, 2019.
  12. ^ Robinson, Kimberly Strawbridge. "Racial Gerrymander Defender Next in Line if Va. Dems Go (2)". news.bloomberglaw.com. Retrieved February 10, 2019.
  13. ^ Gregory S. Schneider; Laura Vozzella (January 30, 2019). "Abortion bill draws GOP outrage against Va. Gov. Northam, Democratic legislators". Washington Post. Retrieved January 31, 2019.
  14. ^ Alan Suderman (January 30, 2019). "Virginia abortion feud erupts; governor blasted for comments". Washington Post. Associated Press. Retrieved January 31, 2019.
  15. ^ Vespa, Matt. "It's Him: VA Gov Northam Apologizes For Racist Costume In Med School Yearbook Photo", Townhall, February 1, 2019.
  16. ^ Pappas, Alex. "Ralph Northam apologizes for medical school yearbook photo with blackface, KKK robe", Fox News, February 2, 2019.
  17. ^ Gabriel, Trip, and Michael M. Grynbaum. "With Northam Picture, Obscure Publication Plays Big Role in Virginia Politics", The New York Times, February 4, 2019. Retrieved February 10, 2019.
  18. ^ Farhi, Paul (February 3, 2019). "A tip from a 'concerned citizen' helps a reporter land the scoop of a lifetime". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 3, 2019.
  19. ^ Vozzella, Laura; Morrison, Jim; Schneider, Gregory S. (February 1, 2019). "Gov. Ralph Northam 'deeply sorry' after photo emerges from his 1984 yearbook showing blackface, KKK hood". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 1, 2019.
  20. ^ "Ralph Northam yearbook page shows men in blackface and KKK robe". Virginian-Pilot. February 1, 2019. Retrieved February 1, 2019.
  21. ^ Kelly, Caroline (February 1, 2019). "Virginia governor's yearbook page shows 2 people in blackface, KKK garb". CNN. Retrieved February 1, 2019.
  22. ^ a b Virginia governor confirms 1984 yearbook page with racist imagery (Associated Press)
  23. ^ a b Farhi, Paul (February 3, 2019). "A tip from a 'concerned citizen' helps a reporter land the scoop of a lifetime about Northam". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 14, 2019.
  24. ^ Segers, Grace (February 2, 2019). "Virginia governor says he was not in racist yearbook photo". CBS News. Retrieved February 2, 2019.
  25. ^ Caputo, Marc. "Northam refuses to resign but says he once did Michael Jackson blackface". Politico. Politico. Retrieved February 2, 2019.
  26. ^ Caputo, Marc (February 2, 2019). "6 moments of weirdness with Ralph Northam". Politico.
  27. ^ Gregory S. Schneider; Laura Vozzella (February 5, 2019). "'This isn't me': Gov. Northam's defiance caught advisers off guard". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 6, 2019.
  28. ^ Leonor, Mel; Martz, Michael (May 22, 2019). "Probe inconclusive; EVMS president knew of racist photo on Northam's page and said nothing". The Daily Progress. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  29. ^ a b Fairfax was preparing to be Va. governor. Then Northam said he was staying put. (Washington Post)
  30. ^ "Virginia governor's deputy Justin Fairfax denies assault claims". BBC. February 4, 2019. Retrieved February 9, 2019.
  31. ^ Vargas, Theresa. "Va. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax denies sex assault allegation from 2004". Washingtonpost.com. Retrieved February 9, 2019.
  32. ^ Martin, Jonathan (February 4, 2019). "Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of Virginia Denounces Sexual Assault Allegation as a 'Smear'". The New York Times. Retrieved February 8, 2019.
  33. ^ Paul Schwartzman (February 6, 2019). "On the brink of historic gains, Virginia Democrats now awash in scandal". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 6, 2019.
  34. ^ a b Schmidt, Samantha; Nirappil, Fenit; Vozzella, Laura (February 6, 2019). "Professor who accused Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of 2004 sexual assault issues statement detailing alleged incident". Washingtonpost.com. Retrieved February 9, 2019.
  35. ^ Dean Mirshahi. "Sources: Lt. Gov. Fairfax hangs up on Mayor Stoney during call meant to 'clear the air'". Wric.com. Retrieved February 9, 2019.
  36. ^ "Vanessa Tyson's statement". Washingtonpost.com. Retrieved February 9, 2019.
  37. ^ Segers, Grace. "Woman describes alleged sexual assault by Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax". Cbsnews.com. Retrieved February 9, 2019.
  38. ^ Breuninger, Kevin (February 8, 2019). "Second woman accuses Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault". www.cnbc.com. Retrieved February 8, 2019.
  39. ^ "Second woman accuses Va. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault". Washingtonpost.com. Retrieved February 9, 2019.
  40. ^ Key supporters tell Justin Fairfax to step down after 2nd sexual assault allegation (CNN)
  41. ^ Va. Democrat backs off plan for impeachment proceedings against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (Washington Post)
  42. ^ Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admits to dressing in blackface as a student (CBS)
  43. ^ a b c Schneider, Gregory S.; Vozzella, Laura (February 6, 2019). "Virginia's three leaders engulfed in turmoil, with Herring disclosure from college days". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 14, 2019.
  44. ^ WRIC (February 2, 2019). "Attorney General Mark Herring calls for Northam to resign". Nexstar Media group. WRIC news (ABC) Richmond. Retrieved February 11, 2019. RICHMOND, Va. - Attorney General Mark Herring says Governor Northam can no longer effectively lead the Commonwealth and should step down. In a statement Herring said he would support Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax should he become Governor.
  45. ^ Bowden, John (February 2, 2019). "Ocasio-Cortez: Northam should resign, his defenders 'deserve scrutiny'". The Hill. Retrieved February 11, 2019. His lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, called on Northam to do what was best for the state in a statement Saturday night, while coming short of asking for his resignation.
  46. ^ Sukin, Gigi Sukin,Gigi. "Full list: Everyone who has called for Ralph Northam's resignation". Axios. Retrieved February 15, 2020.
  47. ^ "Statement Of Sen. Warner, Sen. Kaine & Rep. Scott On Governor Northam | U.S. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia". www.kaine.senate.gov. Retrieved February 15, 2020.
  48. ^ Democrats mute calls for Va. resignations with power at risk (AP)
  49. ^ "Political Scandals Envelop Virginia's Top Government Officials". NPR.org. Retrieved March 4, 2020.
  50. ^ "Virginia Democrats reiterate calls for Northam, Fairfax to resign". U.S. Representative Don Beyer. February 10, 2019. Retrieved March 4, 2020.
  51. ^ "Virginia Lt. Gov. Fairfax resigns from law firm amid sexual assault allegations". PBS NewsHour. July 2, 2019. Retrieved March 4, 2020.
  52. ^ Darcy, Oliver. "Judge dismisses Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax's lawsuit against CBS". CNN. Retrieved June 1, 2020.
  53. ^ "Virginia Lt. Gov. Fairfax sues CBS over accuser interviews". PBS NewsHour. September 12, 2019. Retrieved March 4, 2020.
  54. ^ "Judicial Watch Sues Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax for Documents on Rape Allegations". Judicial Watch. September 6, 2019. Retrieved March 4, 2020.
  55. ^ Robertson, Campbell; Blinder, Alan; Martin, Jonathan (February 9, 2019). "Justin Fairfax Puts Virginia Democrats in Bind on Impeachment". New York Times. Retrieved February 11, 2019. RICHMOND, Va. — Justin E. Fairfax’s refusal to resign as lieutenant governor of Virginia in the face of two allegations of sexual assault has presented Democrats with an excruciating choice: whether to impeach an African-American leader at a moment when the state’s other two top leaders, both white, are resisting calls to quit after admitting to racist conduct.
  56. ^ Finley, Ben; Suderman, Alan (February 11, 2019). "Clamor for ouster of top Democrats slows in Virginia". Associated Press. Retrieved February 11, 2019. RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The clamor for the resignation of Virginia’s top two politicians eased on Monday, with some black community leaders forgiving Gov. Ralph Northam over the blackface furor and calling for a fair hearing for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax on the sexual assault allegations against him. Over the past several days, practically the entire Democratic establishment rose up to demand fellow Democrats Northam and Fairfax step down. But the tone changed markedly after the weekend.
  57. ^ Virginia Democrats' Scandals Puts Spotlight on GOP Speaker (US News & World Report)
  58. ^ a b If Justin Fairfax Is Forced Out in Virginia, Who’s Next in Line? (New York Times)
  59. ^ Why didn't Democrats immediately call on Justin Fairfax to resign? (CNN)
  60. ^ Barakat, Matthew (February 6, 2019). "Virginia scandal could push newcomer into governor's office". Associated Press. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved February 11, 2019. If Northam stepped down, Justin Fairfax would be the second African-American governor in Virginia's history and just the fourth in the entire United States since Reconstruction.
  61. ^ Virginia Gov. Northam, isolated, gets space to ponder his fate as Democrats absorb scandals
  62. ^ Second woman who accused Fairfax of assault was subject of 2008 restraining order (Politico)
  63. ^ a b c Top Republican Virginia Sen. Norment caught up in blackface scandal (NBC News)
  64. ^ Virginia Sen. Tommy Norment was an editor for VMI yearbook filled with racist photos and slurs (Virginian-Pilot)