Virginia residents are at an impasse over whether they feel Gov. Ralph Northam should step down after a racist photo from his past caught up with him last week, though a majority of black voters say they have still his back, according to new polls released this week.
The overall divide is an even split: 47 percent of Virginians want to see him stay; 47 percent want to see him go, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll released Saturday. But what’s significant about the poll results is the racial breakdown of Northam’s support: Even after the governor admitted to using shoe polish to wear blackface in the 1980s, black Virginians still support him more than whites.
Roughly 58 percent of African Americans polled said Northam should remain in office, compared to 46 percent of whites who said the same.
The poll was conducted just days after a racist photo surfaced from the pages of Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook, showing a picture of a man in blackface standing next to another man wearing a white Ku Klux Klan hood. After admitting the picture was his, Northam backtracked a day later and denied that he was either individual in the image. Northam did fess up, however, to dressing up in blackface that same year for a Michael Jackson dance contest.
Dozens of prominent Democrats, state legislators, and progressive organizations publicly condemned Northam and called for his resignation last week. Still, Northam continues to resist his detractors’ demands. And as he’s done so, the top echelons of Virginia politics have begun to implode around him.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admits that he too wore blackface in the 1980s. And Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would become the next governor should Northam bend to pressure to resign, is now swept up in a sexual assault scandal after two women came forward this week alleging that Fairfax had raped them.
The poll was conducted Feb. 6-8, with most (if not all) respondents likely contacted before Fairfax’s second accuser came forward. But even without that second bombshell, it’s likely that the trifecta of controversies helped deflect some of the blowback to Northam’s blackface debacle. Northam insists that he will stay in office until the end of his term in 2020. But time will tell whether he — or either of Virginia’s other top two elected officials — will get dragged down by the swirl of scandals.
People keep talking about a “double standard” for Fairfax
Fairfax is now facing heated calls from Democrats in high places who want to see him step down — much like Northam before him. But the pace of the scandal is moving so quickly that it’s hard to say whether the lieutenant governor will see the same support from Virginia residents as the governor.
First, a Scripps College professor named Vanessa Tyson came forward on Wednesday, claiming Fairfax forced her to have oral sex after what started as a consensual encounter back in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. Days later a second accuser, Meredith Watson, went public with allegations that he raped her while the two attended Duke University in 2000. Fairfax has unequivocally denied the sexual assault allegations and says both incidents were consensual.
Asked about the first allegation of sexual assault against Fairfax, 65 percent of Virginians said they didn’t have enough information to judge the lieutenant governor’s denial one way or another. And the timing of the survey is critical. The poll, a partnership between The Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, tracked voters between Wednesday and Friday of this week. Pollsters didn’t ask about the second allegation, which was corroborated by friends and former classmates of the accuser but didn’t break until late Friday afternoon.
State legislators have since threatened to draft up articles of impeachment unless Fairfax agrees to resign on Monday. Both of his accusers say they are willing to testify if the process moves forward. But on Saturday night Fairfax dug in his heels, calling on the FBI to investigate the allegations and clear his name.
In an interview with CBS host Gayle King, set to air in full Monday, Northam said he supported the investigation into the assault allegations, but he’s not ruling out having to ask Fairfax to step down.
“And if these accusations are determined to be true, I don’t think he’s going to have any other option but to resign,” Northam said.
The prospect that Northam and Herring, two white men, might weather this scandal while Fairfax, a rising star Democrat and only the second black man elected to statewide office in Virginia, could take the fall is leaving some people unsettled.
“I think the Democratic Party would lack credibility if they followed a double standard,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) told the New York Times. Bass, who is the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, called for Northam and Fairfax to step down.
President Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women and had audio leaked of him bragging about grabbing women by their genitals, weighed in on what he saw as a “double standard” on Twitter on Sunday too.
African Americans are very angry at the double standard on full display in Virginia!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 10, 2019
Virginians moving forward have a thin line to walk — any single or combination of moves could throw the line of succession to the commonwealth’s leadership into chaos. Then again, maybe we’ve already reached that point.