As blackface, assault scandals rage, Virginia's governor, lieutenant stand firm

WASHINGTON — It's a high-stakes political dumpster fire the likes of which a Canadian scandal junkie would only dare dream.

A white governor in the birthplace of American slavery admits to wearing blackface in college as part of a Michael Jackson costume — and, in so doing, momentarily considers demonstrating his moonwalk skills on live television. Days later, the attorney general admits he, too, blackened his face for a college party in the 1980s.

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Meanwhile, the lieutenant governor — a black man and the successor to Gov. Ralph Northam, had the governor opted to resign over a yearbook photo he now says isn't of him — suddenly finds himself a possible impeachment target, thanks to searing sexual assault allegations from his own college years.

Welcome to Virginia, which has been pulling focus of late from the facepalm-worthy defiance of President Donald Trump, and where Northam found himself apologizing yet again Monday for referring to slaves as "indentured servants." Indentured servants were bound to masters for extended periods but not treated like property, as slaves were.

"A historian advised me that the use of 'indentured' was more historically accurate," Northam said in a statement following remarks he made in a damage-control interview on "CBS This Morning" that only rekindled the blackface controversy. "The fact is, I'm still learning and committed to getting it right."

With the top three Democrats in the state suddenly embroiled in scandal, the pressure on Northam to quit has eased, adding to the intrigue about a state where the sort of conventional political wisdom that makes sense elsewhere in the U.S., particularly in the nearby District of Columbia, doesn't always apply.

"In Virginia, politics is pretty steady, if that makes sense," said Ernest McGowen, a political science professor at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., the capital of a state where Democrats often hold decidedly conservative views.

"If this was New York, it would be, 'Oh, here we go, another crazy scandal with these crazy New York politicians.' But that's not how it is in Virginia, especially with a guy like Northam. It's very confusing to a lot of people."

A Washington Post-George Mason University poll published Sunday found an even split among respondents who were asked whether Northam should step down from his post. Remarkably, a majority of African American respondents — 58 per cent — said he should remain in the job, compared with 37 per cent who said he needs to go.

That indicates two things aside from support for Northam among black voters, McGowen said: fear of the impact the scandal could have on Democratic efforts to win back the White House in 2020, and the possibility that in Virginia, white politicians with blackface backgrounds actually don't raise that many eyebrows.

"If the average African American has no expectation of Northam to be good on race issues, or particularly African Americans in the south, it is not surprising that a privileged white guy in the 1970s and 1980s would put on blackface or be (photographed) next to a Klan costume," he said.

"If you don't have the expectation that he wouldn't do such a thing, then it doesn't really bother you as much, because you figured he'd probably done it anyway."

The Post poll found a small majority of respondents accepted Northam's apology, compared with 42 per cent who did not, even though a whopping 73 per cent said they found his explanation hard to believe.

On Feb. 1, Northam — confronted with a personal yearbook profile that featured a photo of a man in blackface standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan outfit — admitted he was in the photo and apologized. A resignation seemed imminent. But the next day, he rescinded his admission, attributed the photo's publication on his page to human error in the yearbook office and refused to step down.

Asked why he'd initially said publicly he was in the photo, Northam admitted to having dressed in blackface for a 1984 dance contest. A reporter asked if he could still moonwalk.

A smile crossed his face as he eyeballed the floor next to the podium before his wife, stone-faced, whispered in his ear. "My wife says, 'Inappropriate circumstances.' "

Just days later, Attorney General Mark Herring admitted he, too, had worn blackface while dressed up as the hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow during a 1980 college party.

And Lt.-Gov. Justin Fairfax, the second-most powerful Democrat in the assembly, was accused of sexually assaulting two women — one at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, the other in 2000 during his time as a student at Duke University. Fairfax has denied the allegations, refused to step down and demanded an FBI investigation, insisting the encounters were consensual.

A draft impeachment resolution against Fairfax circulated over the weekend, but Democrat lawmaker Patrick Hope backed away Monday, saying more conversations were needed. Media reports suggest Democrats are divided over whether the allegations are grounds for impeachment, and fear the optics of proceeding against Fairfax and not Northam or Herring.

"If Fairfax is forced to step down and actually does, there could be the perception that racism is OK, or at least it is better than sexual assault," said McGowen, noting that Northam and Herring have both admitted to and apologized for their actions, while Fairfax denies the allegations against him.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been having a field day.

"The top Democrat in Virginia is an accused racist," presidential counsellor Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News. "The second Democrat, the lieutenant governor in Virginia, is an accused rapist — a difference of a letter."

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

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