NEWS
07/02/2019 14:12 GMT | Updated 10/02/2019 11:24 GMT

The Massive Blackface Scandal That Could Topple Virginia's Top Democrats – A Guide For Brits

There’s a chance the party could lose control of the state if three accused politicians are forced to resign.

Two men wearing blackface, another in a Ku Klux Klan costume and a disputed encounter in a Boston hotel room: the US state of Virginia is in the grip of a series of scandals that could end the careers of three of the state’s top elected officials.

And while the UK has grown somewhat accustomed to furores around Donald Trump and the Republican party, this time it is Democrat politicians in the spotlight.

The stakes are about as high as they get: the Democrats won’t only lose three senior politicians, but there’s also a good chance they’ll lose the state governorship.

The saga currently rocking Virginia is headline news, and people are taking to the streets to protest. A candid picture taken yesterday of a Democratic senator in Virginia captured the impact of the strain.

It All Began Last Friday...

...when a high school yearbook photo surfaced from the page of Governor Ralph Northam.

Alongside the expected depictions of a young man posing in his best suit is the disturbing image of two people, one wearing what strongly resembles a minstrel costume and another in the unmistakable garb of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan.

The identity of the two men isn’t clear from the pictures alone but the fact it appears on Northam’s yearbook page is a strong suggestion one of them is him.

Initially, he admitted he was in the photo without saying which costume he was wearing.

Eastern Virginia Medical School

Then, under pressure from nearly the entire state and national Democratic establishment to resign, he denied he was in the photo at all.

But Northam eventually acknowledged that he once used shoe polish to blacken his face and look like Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the US Army.

Among those who called for Northam’s resignation was Mark Herring, Virginia’s attorney general who condemned the photo as “indefensible”, “profoundly offensive” and “shocking and deeply disappointing”.

Bill Clark via Getty Images
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.

But then rumours began circulating of another controversial photo, and this time it was Herring who was said to been in “blackface”.

On Thursday Herring released a statement on Twitter which did not acknowledge the existence of a photo but did detail an incident from his youth.

He said he and two friends dressed up to look like rappers they listened to, including Kurtis Blow, admitting: “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it.”

“That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behaviour could inflict on others,” he said.

But he added: “This conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since.”

Meanwhile, pressure has been growing on Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, after a woman released a statement alleging that he had forced her to perform a sex act on him in a hotel room in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Vanessa Tyson, a 42-year-old political scientist who is on a fellowship at Stanford University and specialises in the political discourse of sexual assault, said, “I have no political motive. I am a proud Democrat.”

“Mr Fairfax has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation,” she said. “Given his false assertions, I’m compelled to make clear what happened.”

Fairfax has repeatedly denied her allegations, saying that the encounter was consensual and that he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear.

“At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years,” he said in a statement.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters
Justin Fairfax speaking at an election rally for Ralph Northam in 2017.

LATEST: A second woman has accused the deputy governor of Virginia of sexual assault, claiming the Democrat raped her 19 years ago while they were both students at university.

A lawyer for Meredith Watson, 39, alleged in a statement that Justin Fairfax had attacked her in 2000, and it described the assault as “premeditated and aggressive”.

Complicating affairs for the Democrats is the line of succession if Governor Northam resigns – next in line is Fairfax followed by Herring.

The prospect of all three stepping down has raised the improbable scenario of the Democrats suddenly losing the governorship to a Republican without an election.

Kirk Cox, 61, the Republican speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, is third in the state’s constitutional line of succession. 

Despite pledging to root out bigotry and intolerance, the Democrats could be forced to rally behind him to avoid the prospect of Republicans suddenly assuming the governorship.

The party made big gains in 2017, fuelled in part because by a backlash against President Donald Trump, his policies and the ongoing investigations into numerous aspects of his business and political practices.

But all this could be wiped out by the end of the week.