Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) summed up the sense of most Virginia Democrats as the latest in a series of scandals engulfed the commonwealth’s top three elected officials Wednesday.
“I’m shocked and incredibly disappointed. This has been an awful week for Virginia,” he told reporters.
Or as one longtime Virginia Democratic strategist told TPM: “It’s a giant clusterfuck.”
Virginia Democrats had worked for decades to gain power in their commonwealth, capitalizing on population shifts and evolutions in the party to put themselves on the precipice of capturing unified statewide control for the first time since the civil rights movement. They swept the statewide offices for only the second time in decades in 2017, and were hoping they could flip the state legislature this fall.
But in the last week, each of their three statewide officials were engulfed in his own scandal — ones that threatened to end their careers and take their party down with them.
Things went from bad to worse for the party on Wednesday, with another painful episode of racial insensitivity, this time by the state attorney general and more details of a sexual assault allegedly committed by the lieutenant governor.
Attorney General Mark Herring (D) admitted on Wednesday that as a college student he’d once dressed in blackface, making him the second top Democratic official who’s admitted to doing so in the past few days. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has also apologized for appearing in blackface in the mid-1980s, even as he changed his story and denied that he was in a picture that appeared on his medical school yearbook page of a man in blackface standing next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
Just hours later, the woman who has alleged that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) sexually assaulted her came forward with her first public statement on the incident, accusing him of forcing her to perform oral sex when he was working as vice presidential nominee John Edwards’ body man at the 2004 Democratic national convention. Fairfax has continued to forcefully deny her allegations.
By the end of the day, the question of who would be governor of the commonwealth in the coming weeks seemed more uncertain than ever, though some Democrats thought the other scandals had strengthened Northam by wounding any logical heir to the throne.
Northam has so far refused to resign, even though nearly every state Democrat has called for him to step aside. Fairfax would become governor if he stays and Northam goes, but Democrats say that looks increasingly unlikely — and unacceptable given the allegations against him. Most reserved judgment on Herring, the next in line to the governorship after Fairfax. If all three left at the same time, the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates would rise to the top — but that’s unlikely, as if they end up resigning they’d likely stagger their resignations to make sure a Democrat stays in the job.
All those developments have Democrats’ heads spinning. A number of current and former Virginia Democratic operatives told TPM they’ve spent the past few days frantically reading new developments and reaching out to current and former colleagues to sound them out on their own thoughts. Every time they had their heads around the latest, it seemed, another bombshell would drop.
“I’m bitter and disappointed. It’s hard to know all that work went towards someone who appears extremely unworthy of it,” Carolyn Fiddler, a longtime Democratic operative who began her career in the Virginia state capitol, told TPM.
Fiddler was referring to Northam — but made it clear she felt the same way about Fairfax, after Scripps Professor Vanessa Tyson released her statement early Wednesday afternoon detailing his alleged sexual assault of her.
“After that [Tyson] statement, he’s got to go. Northam should resign. Fairfax should resign,” she said.
That sentiment seemed to be growing amongst Democrats, most of whom began the day playing wait-and-see on Fairfax.
That includes freshman Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA):
I believe Dr. Vanessa Tyson.
— Rep. Jennifer Wexton (@RepWexton) February 6, 2019
Fiddler is now the Daily Kos’s political editor and an expert on state legislative politics. She warned that the sins of the leaders would end up damaging other Democrats who’ve worked decades to build up the party, cautioning that the scandals could upend Democrats’ hopes to recapture both chambers of the capitol — their first real chance at doing so in decades.
“Shit rolls downhill,” she said. “To say I’m nervous is a bit of an understatement.”
She isn’t the only one. A number of black and female Democrats who asked not to be named because of their current jobs expressed rage, sorrow and frustration for the scandals engulfing their all-male leadership.
One black female Democrat who’s worked in Virginia politics more than a decade, called Herring’s confession “the cherry on top of a really awful cake.”
When Tyson’s statement came out, she reached out again.
“It was painful to read, especially being a survivor of something like that,” she said. “People don’t randomly come out and just make a statement like that for shits and giggles. Out of everything, what’s going on with Justin is the most serious part of this and I don’t think he can be governor either. They both need to go.”
Many Virginia politicians had no interest in weighing in. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the dean of the Virginia House delegation and the state’s most prominent African American politician, breezed by TPM and ignored questions on Wednesday. Even Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), perhaps the most press-friendly member of Congress, refused to talk.
A number of female and nonwhite Democratic operatives who’ve played roles in rebuilding the party lamented that the actions of three men, two of them white, could end up costing female and nonwhite Virginians in a huge way. Virginia Republicans have fought hard to limit abortion, undercut voting access, fight against Medicaid expansion and protect Confederate monuments in the state for years, and could now be better positioned to push those goals.
“No matter what happens those are the people that get screwed. It hurts. This is an own-goal screwing them,” one female operative told TPM.
Not every Democrat in the state agrees on which politicians should stay in office and who should go. But they’re united in their grief, and frustration.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Morgan Finkelstein, who spent years working for the state party and volunteered for the campaigns last election. “It’s hard when you see all of these things coming together.”