The Virginia Political Dumpster Fire

All three of the elected state officials in Virginia are under some kind of cloud, and nobody seems to know what's going to happen next.

As James Joyner noted earlier today, Virginia politics took another bizarre turn today when Mark Herring, the state’s Attorney General, revealed that he had worn blackface as part of some kind of talent shown when he was a college freshman at age nineteen. This, of course, follows the revelation late last week about photographs on the medical school yearbook page of Governor Ralph Northam that show two people, one in blackface and the other in Ku Klux Klan regalia. Initially, Northam issued an apology but failed to specify which person he might be in the picture. This led pretty much the entire Virginia Democratic establishment, as well as many national Democrats, to call for Northam’s resignation. Despite those calls, Northam later stepped forward to say that he was neither one of the men in the photograph, although he did admit to once darkening his skin as part of a Michael Jackson routine for a talent show in San Antonia, Texas after he graduated medical school. Northam has since resisted calls for his resignation, and in recent days the focus has shifted to Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, who is now being accused of sexually assaulting a woman at the Democratic convention in 2004:

The woman who accused Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) of sexual assault released a statement Wednesday identifying herself and describing an encounter in July 2004 during which she said Fairfax sexually assaulted her.

“What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault,” said Vanessa Tyson, a fellow at Stanford University and associate professor at Scripps College. She accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex during the encounter, which allegedly took place during the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

“I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual,” Tyson said.

Tyson’s statement came just hours after Fairfax released a lengthy statement of his own, denying the allegation of sexual assault and urging his supporters to treat the accuser with respect.


Fairfax, who is next in line to be governor if Northam resigns, pushed back forcefully early Monday morning against the sexual assault allegations first made public by the conservative website Big League Politics. He called the allegations false and threatened legal action against Tyson.

In her statement, Tyson said she did not speak about the encounter with Fairfax for years and suppressed the memories in order to focus on her academic career.

“After the assault, I suffered from both deep humiliation and shame,” she said. Then, in October 2017, she learned about Fairfax’s campaign for lieutenant governor of Virginia and the news “hit me like a ton of bricks, triggering buried traumatic memories and the feelings of humiliation I’d felt so intensely back in 2004,” Tyson said.

“Since October 2017 when I first began telling friends about the assault, I have never wavered in my account because I am telling the truth,” she said. “My only motive in speaking now is to refute Mr. Fairfax’s falsehoods and aspersions of my character, and to provide what I believe is important information for Virginians to have as they make critical decisions that involve Mr. Fairfax.”

After Fairfax won his November 2017 election, Tyson had reached out to The Washington Post because she said she felt an obligation to report the incident, particularly amid the #MeToo movement, she said.

The newspaper did not run a story at the time because it could not corroborate the woman’s account or find similar complaints of sexual misconduct.

After some criticism for his aggressive response, Fairfax released a statement late morning Wednesday that struck a softer tone.

“I would like to encourage the media, my supporters and others to treat both the woman who made the allegation and my family with respect for how painful this situation can be for everyone involved,” Fairfax said in a statement. “I wish her no harm or humiliation, nor do I seek to denigrate her or diminish her voice. But I cannot agree with a description of events that I know is not true.”

Fairfax’s statement also addressed his Monday remarks about the allegations, in which he insinuated that supporters of Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a potential political rival, were behind the assault allegations going public.

“This has been an emotional couple of days for me and my family,” Fairfax said. “And in my remarks on Monday, I think you could hear how emotional dealing with an allegation that I know is not true has been for me.”

The allegations against Lt. Governor Fairfax, which until this statement was released were anonymous and rather vague on details, come at an odd time for Virginia politics. As noted, if Northam were to resign, the ordinary course of action would be that the Lt Governor would succeed him and serve out the remainder of Northam’s term, which lasts until the next General Election in 2021. One complication here is that everyone in Richmond was assuming that Mark Herring, the two-term Attorney General who now finds himself embroiled in his own scandal, would be the Democratic nominee in 2021 and that Fairfax would run for re-election as Lt. Governor and, potentially, succeed Herring after the election in 2025.1 The prospect that Fairfax might become Governor if Northam resigned obviously cast those plans in doubt, and there are many who suspect that one reason that Northam was determined not to resign is because he did not want to give Fairfax an advantage in a potential primary challenge by Herring in 2021.

Now, of course, we have a situation where all three of the state government officials who are elected statewide are embroiled in a scandal of one kind or another, and this leaves Democrats in the state in a rather difficult position. The line of succession to the Governor’s office goes from the Lt. Governor to the Attorney General and then, if neither of them is eligible to serve or if their offices are vacant at the time a Gubernatorial resignation, to the Speaker of the House of Delegates. Thanks to a very slim one-vote majority in the wake of the 2017 elections, that person is M. Kirkland “Kirk” Cox, a Republican from the area south of Richmond who has held the office of Speaker since last year. In other words, if Northam, Fairfax, and Herring were all forced from office Virginia would end up with a Republican as Acting Governor for the next two years. For this reason, it seems unlikely that Virginia Democrats are going to do any more than they’ve already done with respect to Northam, Fairfax, or Herring.

To make things more complicated, all of this is happening in a year when the Virginia legislature, including both the House of Delegates and the State Senate, will be up for re-election. After the success they saw in 2017, when Democrats not only swept the top three statewide races, but made significant gains in the House of Delegates, Virginia Democrats approached 2019 with the hope that the year would bring them further legislative victory and, potentially, control of both the House of Delegates and the Senate. Now, with Northam et al facing political scandal of one form or another the state’s Democrats are left with the prospect of heading into those elections with all three of their standard bearers under a cloud. What impact this will have in November is unclear, but it’s obviously not the ideal situation for a party that, until now, had been benefiting from the fact that it was the Republican Party of Virginia that seemed like the incompetent, disorganized political party in the state.

So what happens next in Richmond? Your guess is as good as mine.

Update:  games out what happens in the case of various resignation scenarios.Writing at Bearing Drift, one of Virginia’s premier state political blogs, Stephen Spiker It’s largely the same as what I note above, with the addition, which I left out, of noting that if a new Lt. Governor or Attorney General were named there would need to be a Special Election, which would happen on the same day as the 2019 General Election.

Here’s the statement of Dr. Vanessa Tyson regarding her allegations against Lt. Governor Fairfax:

Statement of Vanessa Tyson by on Scribd

1 In this regard, it’s worth remembering that Virginia limits the Governor to serving one term and bars them from running for re-election, although they could run for election as Governor again at some point in the future. This means that Northam cannot run for re-election in 2021 in any case and that, if he won, Herring would be unable to run for election in 2025 thus clearly the field for Fairfax, who is much younger than either Northam or Herring.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Daniel Hill says:

    Here’s the problem. If we don’t develop some mechanism for people to make amends for stupid stuff they did when they were 19, then the only people who can ever run for high office are the sorts of power-hungry, self-absorbed, busy bodies who seriously decide as teenagers that they will devote their every waking moment to preparing themselves to run for high office…

  2. @Daniel Hill:

    Northam wasn’t 19, he was 25 and getting ready to graduate from medical school and go into the Army.

    The allegations against Fairfax are from just 15 years ago when he was 25, had graduated college and law school, and was working on the Kerry/Edwards campaign before eventually taking a position as a law clerk to a U.S. District Court Judge in 2006.

  3. Ben Wolf says:

    Or Democrats could have supported Tom Perriello during the primary rather than voting for Northam. You get what you pay for.

  4. Kathy says:

    I’m reminded of a quote in the very mediocre movie “Cleopatra” where Caesar insults Cleopatra. I won’t post it, because I think it would be very offensive.

  5. @Ben Wolf:

    Which leads to the question of why Perriello’s oppo research people were not able to uncover this.

  6. Joe says:

    Illinois is sitting quietly, looking furtively away over its shoulder, hoping everybody forgets it.

  7. Benjamin Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis: At a guess, Perriello and everybody else who’s campaigned against Northam told their oppo researchers (to keep costs down) to look in specific areas rather than fully research the guy.

  8. @Benjamin Wolf:

    All that was required was a trip to Norfolk. The 1984 yearbook has been in the library of the Eastern Virginia Medical School since it was published. A decent oppo research team, by either a Democratic opponent or the Republicans, should have uncovered this easily.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    I’ve been an opposition researcher for 13 years, and I’ve heard this question a lot. Once a client even blamed me for not finding his arrest for beating a fellow student half to death in college. Of course, this ignored that first of all, I wasn’t the one who beat a kid half to death, and second, he didn’t even pay for me to research his own record.

    Let’s back up and look at what opposition research does and why you need it. Opposition researchers don’t know everything about everyone. Think of how exhausting it would be to follow someone around until you knew every single part of their lives! No one has time for that.

    Instead, opposition researchers have a pretty standard set of things we look at: news clips, campaign/personal finance disclosures, votes for legislators/budgets for executives, office and travel expenses, sometimes a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, courts/property/voting history, and some level of social media/general Google searching.

    This isn’t a candidate’s entire record. It’s not even a candidate’s entire public record. And it doesn’t include yearbooks.

    Opposition researchers never look at an entire record, because our job isn’t actually about finding things. It’s about how much you’re willing to pay to find things.

    Imagine you’ve set out as an opposition research consultant. Right off the bat, you have to pay for Lexis-Nexis and other subscriptions, marketing, and travel expenses. Then account for billing losses when clients “lose” your invoice and checks get “lost in the mail.” It comes to at least $15,000 before you land your first client.

    This is important because to make money opposition researchers need clients. After clients, the second most important thing we need is time.

    The price most (Democratic) statewide campaigns will pay for an opposition research report comes to about $10,000-$12,000 (less for down-ballot statewides). At that rate, an opposition researcher can spend about five weeks per report. The more time we spend on one report, the less time we have for new clients and more money. Firms who hire staff don’t have it much better, and in some cases, they have it worse: they have to pay for staff regardless of whether their clients are paying their bills.

    The reality is that it takes a lot more time than five weeks to look at more obscure records like yearbooks, student newspapers, multiple courthouses, and microfilm.

    In case you think my clients would be shocked to see this: no, they love it. Most of my clients actually ask me to look at fewer things in exchange for a lower fee. And they may be right: just because I look at more things doesn’t mean I’ll find better attacks. Either way, as media budgets rise, research budgets fall, total information gathered falls as well.

  10. @Ben Wolf:

    And that’s what I call a cheap, incompetent campaign. No wonder Periello lost.

  11. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Are you high? Did you not see the “You get what you pay for” in my initial comment?

  12. @Ben Wolf:

    I did. And I’m saying that if Pereillo, or Gillespie, were too cheap to pay for proper oppo research then they deserved to lose.

    Of course, one could also ask how Northam’s own campaign missed this one. Any smart campaign for office starts out by doing an oppo research job on itself and the candidate so they don’t get caught blindsided.

  13. James Pearce says:

    @Daniel Hill:

    he sorts of power-hungry, self-absorbed, busy bodies who seriously decide as teenagers that they will devote their every waking moment to preparing themselves to run for high office

    (Maybe that’s who they want….)

  14. the Q says:

    This news just in: Beto O’Rourke has dropped out of the race after pictures of him dressed as a cowboy for Halloween surfaced. It shows 8 year old Beto pointing and aiming his toy six shooter at a friend dressed as an Indian.

    Beto was forced to resign after native American groups accused him of tacitly approving and supporting the genocidal extermination of indigenous people. “This picture goes to the true heart of a Texan, a two faced liar who proclaims to be a liberal when in reality he is an Indian hating racist.”

    Beto, in a statement, “I am sorry for the pain I have caused. There is simply no defense for putting on a cowboy costume at the age of 8 and not knowing the stupidity of playing cowboys and Indians with my other friends. I guess I never should have watched the Lone Ranger or Roy Rogers TV shows. In addition, when I was in first grade, I was late returning library books and I accidentally jay walked in middle school. I look forward to supporting the party’s nominee.”

  15. An Interested Party says:

    Hmm…a child dressing up as a cowboy and a grown white man putting on blackface…yes, the similarities are just so obvious…

  16. Eric Florack says:

    @Doug Mataconis: probably because his opposition had something on him that was equally damning.

    Clearly the problem is that the Democrats are being held to their own standards and aren’t surviving the challenge.

  17. An Interested Party says:

    Clearly the problem is that the Democrats are being held to their own standards and aren’t surviving the challenge.

    Umm, no…Democrats realize what a mess they are and want them to go…a pity that Republicans don’t feel the same way about their various messes…

  18. Mister Bluster says:

    …held to their own standards…

    For REPUBLICAN MAN this means that they are all pussy grabbing sexual perverts.

  19. DrDaveT says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Clearly the problem is that the Democrats are being held to their own standards

    ‘Bout time somebody was.

    Of course, Republicans don’t get this, because they can’t grasp the idea of actually having principles that are more important than winning. They are completely down with Satan’s choice in Paradise Lost — they would rather preside over the smoking remains of America than be also-rans in Utopia.

  20. Kari Q says:

    I no longer think Northam should resign. I think the entire Virginia government should dissolve and new elections should be held for the entire state.

  21. KM says:

    @Daniel Hill:

    If we don’t develop some mechanism for people to make amends for stupid stuff they did when they were 19, then the only people who can ever run for high office are the sorts of power-hungry, self-absorbed, busy bodies who seriously decide as teenagers that they will devote their every waking moment to preparing themselves to run for high office

    OK, first of all this presupposes that doing “stupid stuff” is what normal, everyday teenagers do like some immutable law of nature. It is NOT or it wouldn’t be considered “stupid” in the first place. Most people don’t have stories about wild drinking parties every weekend in their youth – they went to handful at best. Most students don’t end up pledging or get involved with frat parties. Most kids don’t go do racist stuff then take pics for the lulz. Even if we accept that 50-60% does this (% of kids supposedly having had a drink before age 18 for baseline deviancy), it mean 40% *doesn’t*. Even if there’s at least one racist pic in every yearbook, the vast majority of them *aren’t*. It’s far more common to have someone who has a worry-free background then someone who does!!!

    It’s like when there’s a story about how a child’s died from being left in the hot car and people in the comments complaining about judging and how “everyone’s done it at least once”. Uh, no they haven’t or car deaths would be FAR more prevalent. It’s not like forgetting your purse, it’s a kid! Just because YOU have engaged in a risky or thoughtless behavior doesn’t make that behavior common or acceptable. People like to think they’re not being deviant and their activities represent a greater whole – the silent majority if you will. They are shocked when confronted with the evidence that no, it’s not that common and yeah, it really was just you.

    Your logic is backwards – the idiots running for office for the last few decades are the power-hungry, self-absorbed, busy bodies who seriously decided as teenagers that NOTHING they will do as youths could possibly ruins their chances for high office and so just decided to let their freak flags fly. It was the 80’s, not the 50’s were talking about so there was definitely some sense of yeah, this might not be a good idea but let’s do it anyways. And guess what? They were right! Kavanaugh is a great example of someone who drank, screwed and otherwise misbehaved his way through his youth only to reach high office in spite of it. You think nobody told him when he was young to knock it off or it would affect his future career? There’s always been a mechanism society’s used to allow people to “make amends”: it’s called denial and it’s no longer working because people are noticing that instead of getting the those kids who had the foresight to not be dicks in their youth, they’re getting the drunken boofers instead.