‘The Democratic Party has made it clear we will not tolerate racism … They just have to do it in a smart way that respects voters’ wishes that Democrats be in charge…’
(Ben Sellers, Liberty Headlines) During the 1950s, the tactic that Democrats in Virginia used to try to defeat federal demands to integrate schools was known as “massive resistance.”
By refusing to acknowledge the newly established law of the land that repealed the earlier “separate but equal” treatise, political heavy-hitters like Sen. Harry Byrd and Gov. Mills Godwin managed to forestall the inevitable federal mandate into the early 1970s.
But as some on the Left are fond of saying in the ongoing push to elevate marginalized identity groups, Virginia Democrats were “on the wrong side of history.”
The recent scandals involving the commonwealth’s three top officials, all Democrats, have many echoes of that earlier defeat—not the least of which are the racial undertones and the tensions between social norms of the past and present.
While it is clear they are morally in the wrong, what side of history they fall on rests in the hands of their political allies.
Again, as with the repeal of segregation, it seems the Democrats’ strategy is to try to ride it out and hope it blows over. Facing a veritable minefield of criticism for their hypocrisy and double-standards, prominent party leaders either have sought to deflect and redirect the blame, or to remain deafeningly mute.
To borrow very liberally from Gandhi the term used to refer to his nonviolent protests, some might even consider the Left’s aggressive inaction a form of passive resistance.
‘Believe Women, Unless…’
Like Kavanaugh, Fairfax was accused by a California college professor of an assault that was jostled into her memory by his sudden appearance in the national spotlight.
Late Friday, details emerged of a second accuser alleging Fairfax raped her while the two were students at Duke University. Details and fallout remained to be seen.
Fairfax’s primary accuser, Vanessa Tyson, who said she was forced to perform oral sex on him when both were graduate students volunteering at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, even hired the same high-profile attorney as Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford.
Several key differences exist: the Tyson account is more detailed than Blasey Ford’s and with fewer holes in the story. Also, there was no apparent alcohol use that might cloud the memories, and it involved only a 15-year gap rather than 35 years.
Despite an early denial, Fairfax also acknowledged that the encounter happened but says it was consensual. And notably, because Tyson is herself a Democrat, the political motives that were ascribed to Blasey Ford’s conveniently timed accusations are far less a factor.
The biggest difference of all, though, is that the chorus of impassioned cries to “Believe women” has fallen silent. Instead, those Democrats who are willing to address it maintain that further investigation is needed before passing judgment and demanding accountability.
“It’s still a he-said, she-said,” the Associated Press quoted state Sen. Barbara Favola as saying.
Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez also hemmed and hawed, stressing the importance of “due process” after having ignored Democrat calls during the Kavanaugh case for chauvinist skeptics to “shut up.”
The Washington Post compiled comments from several prominent Congressional Democrats, and nearly all sought to reserve judgment, in stark contrast with the Kavanaugh hearings.
Most began by couching their equivocations under the qualifier of “I believe we must listen to women, but…”
America Rising, a conservative political-action group, released a video showing even more awkward efforts to dance around the topic.
After the second accuser, Meredith Watson, emerged late on Friday, some of the prominent state-level Democrats appeared to take a firmer position against Fairfax with a statement saying it was time for him to step aside.
Republicans in the legislature indicated they may put forward articles of impeachment.
Fairfax, however, at press time, remained adamant that he would not resign.
In the case of Gov. Ralph Northam, who last Saturday recanted an earlier mea culpa over the blatantly and inexcusably racist images on his personal yearbook page in his senior year of medical school, those who rushed to condemn the governor with near universal calls for his resignation fell largely silent after the Fairfax scandal broke.
However, Northam’s subsequent denial—which in the eyes of many did more harm than good—and his refusal to step down of his own accord, pose a dilemma for his critics. Even if the claims were somehow provable, meaning witnesses came forward to contradict the governor, nothing about wearing blackface or KKK robes in a 35-year-old yearbook violates the law.
According to the Associated Press, he has weathered the storm thus far by staying out of sight, using underground tunnels and communicating, if necessary, through a crisis PR firm.
Like many of his fellow Democrats, Northam, who was statutorily limited to a single term as governor, seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach, doing his best to stall while weighing the best strategy to dodge political consequences.
“His best hope of survival in the short term might be the eruption of two other controversies that have since hit the two men next in line to succeed him, both Democrats,” said the AP article. “The party might be loath to oust the three for fear of handing the governor’s office over to the Republican legislative leader who is next in line.
To some extent, Northam’s strategy appears to be working. While denying he was in the damaging yearbook photo, Northam admitted to just enough guilt—claiming to have worn blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest—to shift the focus away from the more damaging—and more likely—possibility that he was the Klansman. He even called on investigators to use facial recognition technology, seeming confident that it would disprove he was the less problematic half of the racist duo.
Meanwhile, copping to a separate, undocumented blackface incident offered him the perfect deflection defense. In the mid-80s, public acceptance of blackface was such that Hollywood was still using it as a vehicle for comedies. Whether or not one now finds it offensive, blackface was prevalent enough in the time period that laying blame on Northam would surely mean setting up other dominoes to fall.
And indeed, it didn’t take long for the partisan press to lay cover for the embattled gov by painting a false equivalency to Virginia’s Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment.
On Thursday, The Virginia Pilot first reported that the 1968 yearbook Norment helped edit at Virginia Military Institute included several inappropriate references to minorities.
Astoundingly, more in the media seemed to pick up on that engineered scandal than on any of the earlier ones involving the more prominent Democrats.
But unlike Northam, Norment came out swinging, pointing out that he was one of seven editors, that none of the offensive content was directly traced to him, and that he had, in fact, been a vocal supporter of the integration movement taking place at the time, as evidenced on his personal pages.
“The use of blackface is abhorrent in our society and I emphatically condemn it,” Norment said in a statement. “However, I am not in any of the photos referenced on pages 82 or 122, nor did I take any of the photos in question… I am not surprised that those wanting to engulf Republican leaders in the current situations involving the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General would highlight the yearbook from my graduation a half century ago.”
Muddying the Waters
Another blackface case to emerge in the wake of Northam’s scandal was Attorney General Mark Herring‘s.
Facing the possibility that he, as third in line for the governorship, might come under scrutiny, Herring got out in front of the liability by acknowledging that photographic evidence might exist showing him, too, wearing shoe polish to pay tribute to ’80s rapper Kurtis Blow.
Herring’s confession added several shades of nuance to Northam’s defense—first and foremost by again directing the media focus on the lesser sin that the governor may have committed, ensuring that the story was about blackface and not klansmen. Being lumped in with Herring’s more benign appropriation of skin tone diminished the weight of Northam’s offense by association.
It also introduced the question of degree, posing a problem of whether all instances of blackface were equally egregious and unpardonable. Could one offender be punished and not the other?
For Democrats, who were confronting the possibility that Republican House Speaker Kurt Cox would be next in line after Herring, it also tested the limits of their “moral clarity” versus pragmatism, according to Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Kidd likened it to three sinking ships “that suddenly lash themselves together and find they can float.”
Or, as Democrat political operative Zac Petkanas told The Daily Journal, the outcome must determine the consequences.
“The Democratic Party has made it clear we will not tolerate racism or the way some men have treated women,” Petkanas said. “They just have to do it in a smart way that respects voters’ wishes that Democrats be in charge.”
‘Both Sides of the Aisle’?
Like Petkanas, other Democrats seemed to be in total denial of the fact that racism or misogyny could figure into the Democrats legacy in such a way.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a 2020 presidential hopeful, said in scandals such as these, the offender’s party was irrelevant.
“I don’t think this is a party issue,” he told The Daily Journal while expressing doubts that it would impact Democrats in the long term.
Booker, who during the Kavanaugh hearings rode out his own abuse scandal and charges of hypocrisy, opportunistically used the Virginia scandal to point a finger vaguely at Republicans. “We’ve seen these problems on both sides of the aisle. I think this is an issue with a very difficult past, a painful past, a hurtful past that we have. And a lot of the truth telling that’s going on is going to lay the groundwork for reconciliation that we all need.”
But it was unclear what truth telling Booker was referring to, as Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, was even more vocal in his denial, pinning the blame for the Democrats’ refusal to face accountability squarely on the shoulders of President Donald Trump.
“This is but a symptom of a greater syndrome that currently plagues our country as a result of not acting on President Trump’s bigotry,” Green said.
Trump, meanwhile, offered his own take that the fallout would help the state move back toward the red column.
Democrats at the top are killing the Great State of Virginia. If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken. Virginia will come back HOME Republican) in 2020!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 7, 2019
But for now, Republicans are relegated to the back seat.
Whether we as a nation will hold our public figures accountable or continue to tacitly condone overt evidence of racism and sexual assault accusations depends on the standard to which Democrats now choose to hold their own.