Will scandals derail political progress in Virginia?
Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirkland Cox. If the top three Virginia executives resign or are impeached the right- wing Republican would become governor and be in a position to veto progressive legislation even if the Dems, as had been expected, win majorities this November in the Virginia state legislature. Steve Helber | AP

Virginia has been in the headlines recently, but not in a good way. There is national uproar about scandals involving issues of racism and sexual abuse. In the center of the storm are the state’s three top executive officials, all Democrats elected in the groundbreaking state elections of 2017. There are many calls for Governor Ralph Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring to resign or be impeached.

But all this occurs within a context of struggle which has been moving Virginia away from the Republican right and changing this formerly “red” state into a “blue” one. Increased voter turnout of the state’s minority working-class base, as well as demographic and cultural changes, have been important drivers of this movement in this formerly arch-segregationist state.

It was in 1619, exactly 400 years ago that the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia. Slavery was fundamental to Virginia’s economy up until emancipation. During the Civil War two Virginia cities, Richmond and Danville, were the successive capitals of the Confederate States of America. Opposition to Reconstruction was strong in Virginia, and the wish to negate all progress toward racial equality is graphically demonstrated all over the state in statues of Confederate politicians and generals and in the names of roads, streets, parks, and schools. Within the memory of many Virginians, the state government closed down numerous public schools in the state as an act of “massive resistance” against court-mandated desegregation.

The political moment:

Virginia staggers its state elections so that they do not fall in the same years as presidential elections or federal midterms. For many years, this, plus gerrymandering of districts and voter suppression, has resulted in very low turnouts, especially in the Democratic Party base of minorities and lower income working class people. The result has been huge Republican majorities in the 40-member State Senate and 100-member Virginia House of Delegates, and the near impossibility of passing progressive legislation.

But all that has been changing. In the 2017 elections for the three state executive officers and the House of Delegates, sharply increased voter turnout and the public’s reaction to the Trump phenomenon almost led to a radical reversal. The Democrats won the posts of governor, lieutenant governor, and state attorney general, and came within an inch of reversing the Republican majority in both houses of the General Assembly.

The new delegates elected in 2017 included a large number of women and minorities, the first transgender woman ever, and an openly declared socialist. So this represented not only a movement away from the Republicans and toward the Democrats, but also a leftward movement within the Democratic Party too. Then in the federal midterm elections in 2018, the Democrats picked up three House of Representatives seats, reversing the ratio in the Virginia House delegation from seven Republicans and four Democrats, to seven Democrats and four Republicans (both Virginia senators are Democrats).

The Democrats have had reason to feel they are on a roll.

In November 2019, both houses of the Virginia General Assembly, the Senate and the House of Delegates, are up for election. Federal courts have mandated redistricting, which will no doubt help the Democrats in the Southeastern part of the state with its large African-American population. Prospects for Democratic majorities in both houses had been looking good.

Encouraged by these pleasing electoral prospects, the Democrats in the General Assembly have pushed ahead on some very progressive legislation in the current session which ends on February 23.

Measures they have proposed include, among a great many:

  • Signing Virginia on to the ERA. If Virginia were to add its endorsement, the constitutional requirement for states’ ratification of the ERA would be met, and all that would be needed would be for Congress to assert that the original deadline for ratification be extended. This would be a huge victory for women’s rights and a great triumph for the women’s movement nationally.
  • Repealing Virginia’s “Right to Work” law. The existence of this law has been one of the major reasons for the low level of unionization in this state, and its repeal would be a big victory for organized labor and the working class, both in Virginia and nationally. In 2017, voters already rejected a Republican proposal to enshrine “right to work” in the Virginia state constitution, so this is the next logical step.
  • Restoring the voting rights of nonviolent felons once they have served their sentences. Existing Virginia law only allows restoration of voting rights via individual petitions to the governor. This would make it automatic once a sentence has been served. As there is a racial disproportion in the prison population in Virginia, this would be an empowering move for the African American community, as well as for lower-income working-class people in general.
  • Restricting the political influence of the state’s private electrical monopoly, A major complaint in Virginia is that the campaign contributions of this corporation have corrupted the political process for years.

Those are only samples; many other progressive bills have been introduced.

It has not come as a total surprise that most of these initiatives have been shot down by narrow party-line votes in this session so far, either in committee or in the full chambers. The Democrats hoped that this Republican obstructionism could have helped them to win victories in November so that these bills could pass in the next session.

The General Assembly has now entered the “crossover” stage of the current session, in which bills approved in each house are considered in the other, so the story is not over. But in the middle of this, come the scandals involving the three executive officers.

On Friday, February 1, the news broke that governor Northam had supposedly appeared in a racist photograph in his medical school yearbook in 1984. The context was that Northam was already targeted by the religious right and Breitbart because of a confusing statement he had previously made about abortion rights legislation. The right and President Trump jumped on him, accusing him of saying he was in favor of “executing” babies after they are born. In fact, he was speaking in support of legislation in the House of Delegates that would make it easier for mothers to get late-term abortions. But Northam is not precisely a silver-tongued orator, as subsequent events on the yearbook issue have shown. At first, he appeared to confirm that one of the figures in the yearbook picture (the photo showed a man in blackface standing next to another one in Ku Klux Klan bedsheets) was indeed him, and he apologized for it. But immediately afterward, he took back that admission and claimed that it wasn’t him in the photo—but he had put on blackface on another occasion.

Calls for Northam to resign immediately arose from the Black Caucus in the General Assembly and other Virginia and national figures and organizations. If he did so, he would normally be replaced by Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. The reaction of many was that this would be an improvement. Fairfax would become only the second African American governor in Virginia’s history and is considered to be more progressive than Northam on some issues, including that of the pipelines that Dominion Power is building in the state. The highly controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline project involves the construction of a compressor station in the historically African American Union Hill community, and so is opposed not only by environmentalists but also by many African American leaders as “environmental racism.” Northam has supported the project, causing dissatisfaction.

But then two women stepped forward to publicly accuse Justin Fairfax of having sexually assaulted them. Both are African American. Fairfax denies this, but calls immediately arose for him to resign also, which he has resisted so far.

Should both Northam and Fairfax resign, the governorship would go to Attorney General Mark Herring, who is also considered more progressive than Northam on the issues. But then on February 6, Herring also admitted once having put on blackface at a college event when he was 19 years old.

So some, including Nina Turner, the national president of Our Revolution, have called for the resignation or impeachment of all three state officials. But the danger is that the next in line for the governorship is the Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirkland Cox, a Republican. Cox is right wing on most issues, particularly on immigrants’ rights. So even if the Democrats manage to win majorities in both houses of the General Assembly in November, they would face vetoes from Cox as governor.

Others, including labor and social justice activist Bill Fletcher, and Repairers of the Breach leader Rev. William Barber, are less keen on sweeping the three officials out of office, for this and other reasons.

The irony is that the scandals that have hit the three top Democratic officeholders in Virginia might bring into power political forces that are even worse on the salient issues of racism and minority and women’s rights, and set back the progress that has been made precisely on these rights. Even if a right-wing Republican does not end up in the governor’s mansion, the uproar and scandal could have a negative impact on the all-important voter turnout in November.

That would bring joy to racists and reactionaries in Virginia and nationally.



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.