by Phil Wilayto, Virginia Defenders, February 7, 2019
Yes, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam should resign. Immediately. No question. But progressives in Virginia and beyond might want to take this opportunity to think about the party that ran him for the highest office in the Commonwealth.
On Feb. 1, the first day of this year’s Black History Month, the right-wing website Big League Politics published a photo from Northam’s personal page in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. It showed two people, one in blackface, the other in KKK robes and hood. The photo produced a firestorm of condemnation, with figures across the political spectrum calling for Northam to resign. Instead, he held a press conference to apologize for the photo, while not explaining which of the figures in it was him.
A second press conference he held the next day only made matters worse. This time he (1) said he had just seen his own yearbook page for the first time; (2) said he had just remembered he was not one of the two people in the photo; (3) said he was sure of that because he clearly remembered wearing blackface that same year when he portrayed Michael Jackson in a dance contest; (4) said that 1984 – which, by the way, was after the Civil Rights Movement and during the anti-apartheid struggle – was a time when wearing blackface wasn’t considered controversial; (5) offered to submit to a facial recognition test to prove he was not the person in blackface – or the one under the hood (!); and (6) seemed about to demonstrate his Michael Jackson moonwalking skills – at the press conference – until his wife cautioned him that it might not be the best time.
Big trouble for the Democrats
But this political crisis goes far beyond Northam. One commentator for Richmond’s daily newspaper called it a “perfect storm” for the state’s Democratic Party.
The state legislature is now in session and important bills are being debated. There’s also the game-changing question of political redistricting ahead of this November’s elections for all state delegates and senators. Republicans now hold a mere two-seat majority in the state Senate and a one-seat majority in the lower House of Delegates. Northam’s personal crisis is a major distraction, depriving the Democrats of a strong and focused party leader when they desperately need one.
Further, Virginia was the only Southern state to vote Democrat in the 2016 presidential election and will be critical in the 2020 contest in which the Democrats hope to retake the White House. A damaged Gov. Northam isn’t helping the situation. This is why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a growing number of declared Democratic presidential candidates and the head of the Congressional Black Congress are calling for Northam to resign, as have former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (another Democrat), the Virginia General Assembly’s Black Caucus and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, an African-American and rising Democratic Party star widely believed to have his own gubernatorial ambitions.
(Tellingly, the Democratic outcry over Northam’s 35-year-old photo is in sharp contrast to its deafening silence over President Trump’s escalating threats to invade the sovereign country of Venezuela, home to the world’s largest proven oil reserves. But that’s typical of the Dems, who generally are even more pro-war than the Republicans.)
So, the “moderate” Democratic governor of an important swing state has handed a political gift to his local Republican opponents and has put the national Democratic Party in an extremely uncomfortable spot as it works to position itself for the 2020 national elections, causing it to gang up on Northam and demand that he resign.
But what about the responsibility of the Democratic Party itself?
Northam comes from Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore, once a major plantation region, and counts among his ancestors slave owners and Confederate soldiers. He’s a graduate of the 180-year-old Virginia Military Institute, where his nickname was “coonman” – something he has declined to explain. After becoming an Army doctor and a child physician, he served two terms in the state Senate and one as lieutenant governor. So he was not a new figure in politics.
Northam had been a middle-of-the-road Democrat briefly courted by the Republican Party until running in the 2017 Democratic primary for governor in which his major opponent was an establishment liberal, former U.S. Congressman Thomas Perriello (now executive director for U.S. Programs at George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.)
Feeling pressure from the impending “blue wave,” Northam veered left on some issues. But as governor he has angered much of the party’s progressive wing by refusing to oppose two controversial fracked gas pipeline projects, the larger of which is led by Dominion Energy, the state’s most politically powerful corporation.
Most egregiously, he has refused to oppose Dominion’s targeting the predominantly African-American town of Union Hill in rural Buckingham County for a pipeline compression station that has raised fears of excessive noise, air pollution and threats to the area’s water table. The county also includes a state prison, whose residents would be especially vulnerable to any environmental accident.
Not coincidentally, Dominion recently co-hosted a major fundraiser for Northam’s political action committee.
Maybe the state Democratic Party didn’t know about Northam’s racism. Or maybe it knew and didn’t care. But it certainly know about his pro-corporate views.
A racist incident in 2019 is bad timing for the Dems
Several commentators on this issue are pointing out that 2019 marks the 400th year since the first captured Africans were brought to an English-speaking colony in what would become the United States. It’s a time of intensified examination of Virginia’s past as it relates to the present situation of Black people in the state and the country. And in that context, Virginia doesn’t look so good.
In Richmond, the capital city and a Democratic Party stronghold, one out of every four residents live in poverty, including one in every three children. The vast majority are African-American. The City’s answer is to reduce the amount of available public housing, cut back on public transit in poor neighborhoods, continue to let many of the aging public schools deteriorate and only recently begin to address the fact that Richmond has the second highest eviction rate of any city in the country. Meanwhile, it throws open its arms to the mostly white millennial professionals and entrepreneurs it considers to be its future.
Adding insult to injury, 154 years after the end of the Civil War, Virginia still has the largest number of memorials to figures of the Confederacy. Richmond, the former Confederate capital, has yet to do anything about the statues honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis; generals Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson and J.E.B. Stewart; and Admiral Matthew Maury that boldly confront the public on Monument Avenue, a street listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the past, Gov. McAuliffe and Sen. Tim Kaine, both Northern-born Democrats, have defended the statues as part of the state’s history. “This is our heritage, this is who we are,” said McAuliffe, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee who was born in Syracuse, N.Y.
While running for governor, and shortly after the murderous “Unite the Right” white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Northam had called for taking down the state’s hundreds of Confederate memorials. Since his election, he has been silent on the issue.
Further, Richmond has yet to properly memorialize the downtown district of Shockoe Bottom, once the epicenter of the U.S domestic slave trade and from which the majority of Black people in North America could likely trace some ancestry. Despite a decades-long community struggle around this issue, Mayor Stoney, a McAuliffe protege, has done his best to drag out the issue, bending to local real estate interests that covet the property.
It’s not enough to condemn Northam for his crude racism. It’s not enough to replace him with a more progressive Democratic governor. No, it’s past time for Virginia’s progressive community to rethink its support for the ”lesser of two evils.” If there’s one thing that history has taught us, it’s that it’s far less important who is in the governor’s mansion than who is in the streets.
Gov. Northam has called his “blackface” crisis a teachable moment. It surely is, in more ways than one.
Phil Wilayto is editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper in Richmond, Va. He can be reached at DefendersFJE(at)hotmail.com.