A Comprehensive Guide to the Scandals Engulfing Virginia Politics

Governor Ralph Northam and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.
Governor Ralph Northam and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. Photo: Getty Images

In less than a week, four of Virginia’s top politicians have become engulfed in their own separate but interconnected scandals. First, there was Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s appearance in a racist photo from the 1980s; then, the man who would succeed him, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, was accused of sexual assault; yesterday, the third-in-command, Attorney General Mark Herring, voluntarily admitted to wearing blackface in college; and just today, it emerged that Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment oversaw a yearbook that published racist photos and slurs. As the scandals have mounted, they’ve merged into one massive controversy that has consumed Virginia politics, leaving constituents unclear of what will — or should — happen.

Below, here’s a comprehensive guide to the individual scandals and the ways they overlap.

When did the scandals start?

Technically, the source of the first scandal dates back to 1984, when Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam — then a 25-year-old med student — appeared in a yearbook photo of someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe next to someone in blackface. It wasn’t until February 1, though, that the right-wing website Big League Politics published the photo, sparking the controversy and backlash. Soon after the report went up, Northam apologized, saying he was “deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.” By the end of the day, Democrats and Republicans alike were calling for his resignation.

And then, he somehow managed to make matters worse. On February 2, Northam attempted to backtrack and deny that he appeared in the racist photo, saying he was sure because he recalls doing blackface in college — just not in that particular instance. In an incredibly long press conference, Northam said he remembers “darkening” his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume, which he stressed was not nearly as bad as doing blackface.

“I really do believe that both of them are wrong,” Northam said of the racist photo and his Jackson costume. “But there’s a contract between the blackface and someone standing there in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, and me dressed up in a Michael Jackson costume for a dance contest.”

Will he resign?

Since the photo emerged, everyone from presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren to Virginia senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner — two of Northam’s most important allies in the state — have called on Northam to resign. However, as of now, the governor has signaled no intention to do so. During the February 2 press conference, he argued his innocence by asserting he didn’t know blackface was offensive at the time, since everyone was doing it. Therefore, he didn’t want to take the “easy” way out by resigning; instead, he hopes to have meaningful conversations about bigotry and racism, while he continues to fulfill his oath of office.

Were Northam to resign, Democratic lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax would become the 74th governor of Virginia.

So Fairfax should take over, right?

Well, Fairfax is engulfed in his own scandal. Just days after Big League Politics uncovered the racist photo, the conservative website obtained a private Facebook post in which a woman accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in a Boston hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The following day, Fairfax tweeted the allegation against him was “false and unsubstantiated,” and later implied at a news conference that the allegation was part of a “smear campaign.” (He has argued that the timing with Northam’s own scandal is suspect.) Though he has acknowledged that the encounter took place, he says it was “100 percent consensual.”

But the accuser, Scripps College professor Vanessa Tyson, tells a different story. In a statement she released through her law firm on Wednesday, she described the scenario as one where she “cried and gagged” while Fairfax “forced [her] to perform oral sex on him.”

“I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual,” she continued. “To be very clear, I did not want to engage in oral sex with Mr. Fairfax and I never gave any form of consent. Quite the opposite. I consciously avoided Mr. Fairfax for the remainder of the Convention and I never spoke to him again.”

Fairfax, too, is facing calls to resign.

So, if not Fairfax, who’s next?

Were both Northam and Fairfax to resign, Democratic attorney general Mark Herring would become governor … if he didn’t have a scandal of his own. After calling on Northam to resign over the racist photo, Herring voluntarily admitted in a statement saying that he wore “wigs and brown makeup” at a college party, apparently in an attempt to depict himself as a rapper.

Of the three politicians, Herring is the only to weigh the possibility of resigning, which he divulged in a statement.

“That I have contributed to the pain Virginians have felt this week is the greatest shame I have ever felt,” Herring said. “In the days ahead, honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general, but no matter where we go from here, I will say that from the bottom of my heart, I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation.”


There’s more. On February 7, one day after Herring’s confession, The Virginian-Pilot uncovered the college yearbook that Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment oversaw 1968. Surprise: It was replete with racist phrases and images. While it’s unclear whether Norment appeared in any of the offending images, the yearbook features multiple photos of students in blackface; it also contains a number of racist slurs, including at least one instance of the N-word. (While Norment is one of Virginia’s most powerful Republicans, he is not fourth-in-line for Virginia’s governorship; that would be Republican speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox.)

At this point, Norment isn’t even addressing his involvement with the yearbook. On Thursday, when asked to comment on the yearbook, he replied, “The only thing I’m talking about today is the budget.”

Will this ever end?

Sure doesn’t seem like it!

A Guide to the Scandals Engulfing Top Virginia Politicians