‘Men without a country:’ Virginia leaders urged to step aside as 2019 battle for control of the Capitol approaches

By: - March 4, 2019 4:04 am

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax faces two allegations of sexual assault and Gov. Ralph Northam has admitted to wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume after a racist yearbook photo was discovered on his yearbook page.

WASHINGTON — With top officials in Richmond hobbled by allegations of racism and sexual assault, Democrats in Virginia’s congressional delegation are already looking for ways to curtail the political fallout back home in November.

As the controversies piled up, many worried that the Democratic majorities that seemed within reach in the state legislature were in jeopardy. But Democrats in the delegation — having distanced themselves from the governor and lieutenant governor — say they’re planning to use their resources to help their party this fall.

U.S. House and Senate Democrats are going to “step into the breach,” U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, a Democrat from the 4th District, told the Virginia Mercury. They will be ramping up campaign and fundraising efforts on behalf of state-level Democrats, who hope to win full control of the General Assembly for the first time in a quarter century.

“The top three officeholders are unable to do that at the present time,” McEachin said. “But we will do our best to … help delegate candidates and Senate candidates.”

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Congressional Democrats are in a strong position to help down-ballot races. Their numbers nearly doubled in last fall’s elections, going from four to seven of the state’s 11 seats in the U.S. House. And U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have rising star power, as each is being mentioned as a 2020 presidential prospect.

Meanwhile, Virginia Republicans have already begun shaping their messaging for the General Assembly races this year, fashioning themselves as the party of good governance and touting the tax-relief package that Northam has signed into law.

“The 2019 General Assembly Session produced a stark contrast for Virginia,” House Republicans said in a news release last week. “The controversies of the Democratic statewide office holders have led to chaos and embarrassment for our state. On the other hand, the Republican-led General Assembly has delivered leadership and results on the issues that matter most.”

‘Men Without a Country’

Yet, after a full month of controversy, it’s unclear how much federal officeholders can help repair political damage done by the state’s top Democrats.

Last month, two of the state’s top Democratic officeholders — Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring — admitted to wearing blackface when they were younger. A third — Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — faces accusations of sexual assault, which he denies, and potential hearings before lawmakers.

Last week, First Lady Pam Northam was the subject of more controversy when the daughter of a black state official took offense that she handed out raw cotton during a tour for pages of the governor’s mansion, with Northam asking the children to imagine having to pick the crop as slaves. Others on the tour, however, said the incident was being mischaracterized. Northam said she did not intend to single out the black children.

The scandals certainly don’t help the party’s chances of taking the General Assembly, conceded U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-11th. But he stressed that Northam and Fairfax don’t represent the entire Democratic Party.

“The first people to react almost uniformly in condemning the incidents and calling for resignations were Democrats, unlike Republicans, who have circled their wagons around Trump and his misdeeds.”

The nine Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation (two senators and seven representatives) issued a joint statement calling on Northam to resign in the wake of the publication of a photo in his 1984 medical yearbook featuring one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam initially admitted he was one of the men in the photo, but then said he wasn’t.

Six of the seven House Democrats have also called on Fairfax to resign, and the seventh — Rep. Bobby Scott of the 3rd District — called for an investigation into the accusations. In the U.S. Senate, Kaine called for Fairfax’s resignation, while Warner called on him to resign if the allegations are accurate.

“I think the party has made its feelings quite clear on the matter,” McEachin told the Mercury. “I don’t think we lose credibility, number one, and, number two, we’re running against the party of Trump.”

When asked whether Democrats’ credibility on civil rights and women’s rights has been compromised, Scott responded: “Compared with Republicans?”

Democrats, he told the Mercury, have a much stronger record on these issues.

U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-6th, wouldn’t say whether the Democratic Party’s standing on those issues has been affected.

“Most Democrats have called for [Northam’s] resignation, and I don’t know that any have taken that back,” he said. “I hope the governor will heed the call of most members of his party.”

Connolly went further: Northam and Fairfax are “men without a country,” he said. “Their party has abandoned them. … For the sake of, not the party, the sake of Virginia, the state they were sworn to serve, they need to move on.”

Aiming to Turn Virginia Blue

None of the three embattled Virginia officials have indicated they will stop down, leaving lower-level Democrats to contend with scandals at the top of their party as they head into election season.

Currently, Democrats hold 19 of 40 seats in the state Senate and 49 of 100 seats in the House of Delegates. If they net two seats in each chamber, they would nab a rare trifecta — holding the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the assembly for the first time since 1993. With the legislative session now adjourned, the election cycle is “next on the agenda,” McEachin said.

Despite the scandals, McEachin maintained that Democrats are in a strong position as they head into campaign season this summer, thanks in part to (if they stand) more than two dozen newly-drawn House of Delegates districts that favor Democrats.

“With the retirements taking place and the energy that’s out there,” he added, “I think the fundamentals are in place for a Democratic sweep in November.”

The Virginia election — one of relatively few around the country this year — promises to generate national media coverage. And the prospect of complete Democratic control in Virginia is already drawing heavy national investments, including $1 million from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

“We know we have to invest early … to turn Virginia blue next November,” DLCC executive director Jessica Post said.

Reporter Robin Bravender contributed to this story.

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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is an independent writer, editor, and communications strategist in Northern Virginia. She can be reached at www.allisonstevens.com.