A wave of scandals has turned Virginia politics on its head, and the state's top three politicians could all be on the way out

virginia gubernatorial line succession 2019

Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

Virginia's top three government officials are embroiled in scandal.

  • Virginia's top three Democratic politicians are embroiled in scandals, launching the Commonwealth into a state of chaos.
  • Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring both admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s, but neither have resigned.
  • Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax is accused of sexual assaulting a woman at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
  • The crisis has no clear end in sight, with all the politicians standing their ground. Here's where the situation currently stands.

Virginia has been mired in political turmoil over the past week as its Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and a key member of the State Senate found themselves embroiled in separate scandals involving wearing racially offensive blackface, editing yearbooks containing blackface photos, and allegations of sexual assault.

The revelations have brought Virginia's long and painful history of systemic racism to the forefront of the public discussion and put Democrats in a bind.Advertisement

Here's a timeline of everything we know so far, and what could happen next:

Ralph Northam offered conflicting explanations for a photo on his yearbook page

On February 1, the right-leaning blog Big League Politics published a photo from a page in Eastern Virginia Medical School's 1984 yearbook that included a photograph of a person wearing blackface standing next to another in a Klu Klux Klan costume.

On Friday night, Northam put out a statement apologizing for having appeared in the photograph after its authenticity was confirmed by other outlets, but did not state whether he was the person in blackface or the costume.

Soon after, a slew of Democratic state and federal officials called on Northam to resign office and let Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, a progressive African-American politician many considered to be a rising star in the party, take over the governorship.

But in a stunning press conference the next day, Northam walked back his statement from the night before. He denied being one of the people in the yearbook photo, but said he had painted his face black with shoe polish for a Michael Jackson look-alike contest during the 1980s - even offering to moonwalk on the podium. Northam's performance at the press conference spurred even more outrage and calls for him to step aside, including from US Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. But Northam's political fate got more complicated when his lieutenant governor found himself at the center of his own scandal. Advertisement

Read more: How Virginia Governor Ralph Northam went from being a respected US Army veteran and physician to being embroiled in two national controversies

Justin Fairfax continues to deny troubling allegations of sexual assault

On Sunday night, Big League Politics published a screenshot from a social media page belonging to Vanessa Tyson, a professor of political science at Scripps College, on which she wrote that someone who assaulted her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention "would likely get a VERY big promotion," with the article heavily implying that person was Fairfax.

At around 3 a.m. on Monday, Fairfax's office put out a statement strongly denying Fairfax had ever assaulted anyone, with Fairfax later calling the allegations a "totally fabricated story out of the blue."Advertisement

Fairfax's statement claimed the Washington Post had reviewed his accuser's claims and found "inconsistencies and red flags" in her account. The Post later pushed back on that claim, saying they decided not to run Tyson's story due to lack of corroboration, not because of any inconsistencies.

On Wednesday, Tyson came forward and alleged in a lengthy and detailed statement of her own that Fairfax forced her to preform oral sex on him in a hotel room at the DNC. She has retained the high-power law firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings.

Fairfax's camp remains on the offense, maintaining that Fairfax and Tyson had a consensual sexual encounter that involved no assault or coercion. They have threatened to sue "people who continue to spread these false allegations," and even suggested rival politicians planted the story to smear Fairfax, who planned to run for Governor in 2021.Advertisement

Read more: Meet Justin Fairfax, who is poised to become Virginia's governor if Ralph Northam resigns

Democratic politicians have approached the situation with caution. Jennifer Wexton, a freshman congresswoman from Northern Virginia, tweeted that she believed Tyson but did not explicitly call on Fairfax to resign, and other lawmakers have called for the matter to be formally investigated.

The Virginia Democratic Party said in a Tuesday statement they are will "continue to evaluate" the allegations. Advertisement

justin fairfax

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax speaks during an interview in his office at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019.

Mark Herring admitted to donning blackface in the 1980s

With Northam and Fairfax embroiled in scandal, state officials looked to Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring to take over the reins of government in the event that the governor and lieutenant governor both stepped down. But after a Wednesday morning meeting with members of the House of Delegates Black Caucus, Herring put out a statement disclosing that he too had worn blackface to a 1984 party as a 19-year-old college freshman. Advertisement

Read more: Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring reveals that he also wore blackface during college, threatening a constitutional crisis

In the statement, Herring said his "contributing to the pain Virginians have felt is the greatest shame I have ever felt" and that his conduct in college "is in no way reflective of the man I am today."

Herring did not, however, offer his own resignation after previously calling on Northam to step down. While some accused him of hypocrisy, other Democrats and political commentators commended Herring's honesty and genuine remorse over his actions. Advertisement

Democratic State Senate leader edited a yearbook with racist content

On Thursday, the Virginia Pilot reported that Tommy Norment, the current majority leader of the Virginia State Senate, had edited a 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook that featured offensive photos of people in blackface and racial slurs.

"I was kind of the first sergeant," Norment told the Virginia Pilot of his position as managing editor on the yearbook staff. "I'm still culpable, but it is by association with a team that produced that yearbook with those photos."

While Norment has not faced the same level of backlash as Northam or Herring, his involvement in editing the yearbook highlighted how pervasive racist behavior and attitudes persist in Virginia, with officials at the highest level of government perpetuating racism at various points during their lives. Advertisement

What will happen next?

If all three officials step down, the third in line to the governorship would be Kirk Cox, the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates.

Cox came into his current position when the results of a 2017 House of Delegates election resulted in a exact tie - and the Republican candidate won his seat by random drawing.

Because a Republican is third in line, political analysts deem it highly unlikely for all three officials to resign. But it remains an open question as to if any will step down and who would take their place. Advertisement

Politico reported Friday that Northam has hired a top crisis management firm to represent him and that he has no plans to step down - for now.

In light of a viable Democratic alternative to take over the governorship, Northam looks to be trying to ride out the scandal and wait for the news cycle to move on, staying in office even without the support and trust of his own party. "On Friday when Democrats were calling on Northam to resign, it was kind of an obvious case. It wasn't just that Northam had done something wrong, but Fairfax was lined up to be Governor," FiveThirtyEight political writer and analyst Perry Bacon Jr. said in a FiveThrityEight politics podcast episode Wednesday. Advertisement

"Now all three men are scathed. Wearing blackface is problematic, I would argue that sexual assault is much more significant," he added. "I do think Fairfax may be in the worst trouble here."

With all three politicians standing their ground for now, the situation is unlikely to be resolved in the immediate future, and become only become more complicated and painful by the day.