“Although the shame of that moment has haunted me for decades, and though my disclosure of it now pains me immensely, what I am feeling in no way compares to the betrayal, the shock, and the deep pain that Virginians of color may be feeling,” he said. Herring did not announce plans to resign, but said that conversations in the coming days would indicate whether he could or should remain in his post.
Even without Herring stepping down, the bombshell throws the Democratic Party, and Virginia’s government, even further into disarray. The controversy began when Virginia lawmakers considered, and Northam defended, a late-term abortion bill. A disgruntled tipster led a conservative blogger to publish Northam’s medical-school yearbook on Friday. The governor has faced almost unanimous calls to step down, including from the state Democratic Party, the Democratic caucus in the legislature, and the Democratic National Committee, but has thus far refused. The Washington Post reports that Northam, a former Republican who voted twice for President George W. Bush, might leave the Democratic Party in an attempt to keep his job. After initially acknowledging and apologizing for the photo, Northam then backtracked, saying he did not believe he was either man—but he did not explain why the photo appears on his personal page in a medical-school yearbook. He also said he had dressed up in blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume on another occasion.
Fairfax, a young African-American politician, had been seen as an attractive replacement for Northam, especially given the circumstances, until the accusation of sexual assault emerged. Fairfax has emphatically denied any wrongdoing, and says he had a consensual sexual encounter with his accuser, Vanessa Tyson, a professor of politics at Scripps College. (He has also accused Levar Stoney, a rival Democrat who is mayor of Richmond, of spreading the story. Stoney denies this.) This week, Tyson hired the same law firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her in high school. Fairfax has also refused to resign.
But in today’s Democratic Party, which puts racial justice and women’s equality front and center, and depends on the votes of women and minorities to succeed, it’s difficult to imagine either man having much political future. That turned attention to Herring—and from there, led to Herring’s acknowledgement Wednesday, which seemed to be an attempt to prevent an embarrassing revelation emerging somewhere else.
With all three men’s political futures in flux, it’s impossible to predict who might be left standing as the scandal progresses, and who will end up in the governor’s office. But to state the obvious, the scandals are a huge problem for the Democratic Party of Virginia. The state has tilted to the left in recent years, electing two Democratic governors in a row and voting for Democrats in each of the last three presidential elections; the fact that the state’s top three elected officials are Democrats shows their growth, though Republicans hold a one-seat advantage in both chambers of the General Assembly. The scandals will likely make it harder for Democrats to take control of either chamber in this fall’s elections.