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6 Feb, 2019 20:38

Blackface, sexual assault & full-birth abortion: Virginia Democrats in crisis

Blackface, sexual assault & full-birth abortion: Virginia Democrats in crisis

The entire Democrat leadership of the US state of Virginia is crumbling under allegations of racism and sexual assault. Meanwhile, one lawmaker admitted she’d never even read a controversial abortion bill before endorsing it.

Governor Ralph Northam was the first to face the storm, after a photo emerged last week showing him posing in his medical school yearbook, in either minstrel-style blackface or wearing Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam apologized, then denied appearing in the photo a day later, and has so far resisted calls to resign, despite condemnation from both parties and a trouncing on social media.

Northam was elected to the governor’s mansion in 2017, after accusing his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie of “racist fearmongering” on the campaign trail.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who is African-American, condemned Northam’s taste in costumes but stopped short of calling for his resignation. Fairfax, however, had his own moment of reckoning this week, when a California professor accused him of sexually assaulting her in a hotel room at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Fairfax denied the allegation, and claimed that his encounter with the woman had been consensual.

As the top two Virginia officials tried to handle public relations nightmares, Attorney General Mark Herring – who would take over gubernatorial duties if both Northam and Fairfax were to resign – evidently looked at his fellow Democrats and said “hold my beer…”

On Wednesday, Herring said that he had worn blackface to a college party in 1980. Explaining himself, Herring said he and his friends broke out the brown makeup and attended a party “dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow.”

“It sounds ridiculous even now writing it. But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes – and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others – we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup,” he said in a statement.

Herring’s admission came after a meeting with the Virginia legislative black caucus, and before any unfortunate photos were dug up. Herring, who plans on running for governor in 2021, had called for Northam to resign just days earlier.

While blackface was considered unacceptable even three decades ago, today it is a career-ending taboo. Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel resigned last month after a picture of him dressed as a ‘Hurricane Katrina victim’ – in blackface and drag – appeared online. NBC host Megyn Kelly had her show canceled and was ousted from the network last year, after she suggested that wearing blackface is acceptable as part of a costume.

Attitudes towards sexual assault have also hardened in recent years, particularly with the advent of the #MeToo movement. On both issues, Democrats have been some of the loudest voices campaigning for change.

Many House and Senate Democrats, as well as Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, have all called on Northam to resign, but party leadership has remained mostly silent on the assault claim against Fairfax.

Should all three resign or be forced out by party higher-ups, governorship would be passed to Kirk Cox, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates – and a Republican.  

Commenters on Twitter ridiculed the week’s events.

Virginia’s legislative branch is having its own troubles. Delegate Dawn Adams (D) admitted to constituents last week that she co-sponsored a controversial late-term abortion bill without ever reading its text.

“I did this in solidarity with my colleague and as a symbolic gesture for a woman’s right to choose,” she said in an explanatory statement.

The bill would allow abortions to be carried out in some cases right up until before the moment of birth, and was endorsed by Northam, who claimed in a recent radio interview that a child delivered after a failed abortion attempt could still be terminated. President Trump referred to Northam’s interview during his State of the Union speech, where he bashed the embattled governor for stating “he would execute a baby after birth.”

That radio interview is what reportedly motivated a medical school classmate of Northam’s to tip the media off about the yearbook photo, triggering the current avalanche of recrimination.

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