Democratic politics in Virginia is a train wreck right now. It’s only been going on for a few days, starting when Governor Ralph Northam made comments about a proposed bill to expand the legality of late-term abortion that seemed to endorse infanticide if the mother wanted it. Shortly after that, someone leaked his page from a medical school yearbook, which included a photograph of a young white man in blackface hugging a member of the KKK. It seems the leaker was upset about Northam’s comments on abortion.
Early on, when the wider Democratic response was uncertain, I respected the ideological consistency of any liberals calling for Northam’s resignation. It was a stupid and unprecedented move to demand resignation for something anyone did in medical school, twenty years before they were in public office, that wasn’t a crime, but it was a bold move. It also seems shortsighted for the generation under 35 to declare that stupid things said some time ago can be disqualifying at 60, when we don’t even know what the big controversies will be a generation from now, and there are more records than ever about everything we’ve said and believed.
What Northam said then was stupid and outrageous, but there’s a middle ground between thinking racism is cool, and a bad joke in a textbook 35 years ago is cause for resignation. It should have been cause for an apology and some mockery.
However, there is a recent acknowledgement of blackface, which is seen as emblematic of other problems: the lack of roles for African-Americans for films, the lack of representation, the dangers of stereotypes. The Florida Secretary of State resigned after a blackface Halloween photo came out, although he was also mocking Hurricane Katrina survivors with his costume, and was an elected official at the time of the photo.
Democrats have made some comparisons between Northam and the likes of Roy Moore , Steve King and President Trump, suggesting that they’re more willing to do the right thing and abandon troublesome figures. Steve King lost all of his committee assignments, leaders in the party have called on him to resign, and he already has a prominent primary challenger in State Senator Randy Feenstra.
The allegations of Moore dating teenagers as a thirty-something prosecutor came out after he won the nomination for Senate, so abandoning him would cost the party. The media didn’t release the tape from Trump on the set of Access Hollywood in 2006 until he was the Republican nominee for President. It’s convenient for Democrats to call for Northam’s resignation when there’s a Democratic Lieutenant Governor waiting to take over, just as it was convenient for Democrats to call for Franken’s resignation in a state where the Democratic Governor was able to pick a replacement, and when it could be used as a cudgel against both Trump and Moore (at the time a nominee in the special election.) Nate Silver noted the political upside in replacing Franken. In these cases, there isn’t much cost for the party for upholding principles in a way that allows them to posture in the future.
There were also plenty of Democrats who didn’t like Northam. Leftists much preferred his primary opponent, former Congressman Tom Perriello. The identity politics crowd would be happy with the elevation of Justin Fairfax, the young African-American Lieutenant Governor.
I don’t think Democrats are a hivemind, so motives vary. Some people are legitimately hurt by what Northam did, or believe his failure to address this earlier in his political career makes his current judgement suspect. But there are limited costs for calling for his resignation. Once there’s a bandwagon, there’s no bravery in it.
There have been some good arguments against Northam’s regisnation. Eugene Volokh considers the implications for the future.
Consider what standard we’re trying to set for the future. If it’s “people who are lying today about their bad behavior from 35 years ago shouldn’t be in high office,” that may be sensible. If it’s “people who committed serious crimes 35 years ago, for which they weren’t punished, shouldn’t be in high office,” that may be sensible. (Again, I don’t believe that Justice Kavanaugh was guilty on those counts, but that goes to the particular facts related to those accusations, and not the general principle of what should have been done if the accusations were accurate.)
But if it’s “people who said or did offensive things 35 years ago shouldn’t be in high office,” or even “people who expressed racist / sexist / anti-gay / anti-Semitic / etc. opinions 35 years ago shouldn’t be in high office,” that’s a very different thing. It’s tarring someone forever for minor misconduct (again, I note that major misconduct would be a different matter), without considering whether he may have developed better judgment and better views from age 25 to age 60. It’s rejecting the possibility that people actually get wiser as they get older — that they grow up — that they improve their judgments, their beliefs, and their conduct.
And it’s potentially depriving the nation of many valuable public servants because of a dumb thing they did long ago. Northam’s specific past behavior (again, I’m setting aside the newly emerging denial, and whether it’s a false denial) may not be that common. But consider all the other things that can be blown up into similar hurricanes. Maybe some people (black, white, or of any other race) quoted some sexist lyrics. Or maybe they expressed anti-gay views, which they may now regret. (Lots of people’s minds have changed in 35 years about sexual orientation, as they have changed about what is so racially offensive that it shouldn’t be said.) Or maybe they praised people who shot at police officers, or said nasty things about American soldiers. Or maybe they told jokes about Jews or gays or Puerto Ricans or men or women, whether or not those jokes actually reflected their own serious views about such matters.
Or maybe they did things that actually risked physically harming people, rather than just offending them. Maybe, for instance, they drove drunk — poor judgment, potentially very dangerous, not something we’d want of a sitting Governor — but doesn’t it matter that it happened three decades ago rather than today?
If you want to go after Northam for his current views on abortion, go ahead. If you want to go after him because you think he’s lying today about what happened then, go ahead. But calling for him to resign because of his bad judgment (or even his racist views, if you think he actually held such views then) from 35 years ago — what kind of country would we be creating if that were really adopted as the rule?
Robert A. George of the Daily News addressed the argument that everyone at the time knew a blackface photo was unacceptable. Except for Northam (if he was in the photo), whoever the other person in the photo was, whoever took the photo, the faculty advisor to a Med School yearbook, and any student editors.
After much fun at Northam’s expense, a serious though: A few tweets have run along the lines of, “Even in the South, 35 years ago, everyone knew that wearing a Klan outfit or blackface was racist.” Having been in college myself at that time, I started nodding.
But then I pause. EVERYONE knew that this type of behavior is racist? That means Northam must have been racist (he admits in his Friday statement that what he did was racist). It means his partner in crime was racist. But there was a compiler/editor of the yearbook, right?
That supposedly responsible person accepted Northam’s photo. — and let it go, right? Was there a faculty advisor? Did that person approve it too? My point here is that either everyone knew this was something REALLY ugly and racist OR they were doing something what they bizarrely thought was “funny” and no one stopped to think, “Oh, it’s funny, but really ugly and maybe we shouldn’t do it.” IOW, the 20/20 hindsight we have now that EVERYONE knew this was something you didn’t do might not have been as strong back then.
The rest of the twitter thread is worth checking out.
If this had been all there was to the story, Northam would have resigned. Fairfax would be Governor. This would largely be forgotten, except for the larger question of whether we’re going too far as a society in our unwillingness to forgive past offences. The main impact might be people deciding they would rather not seek public office, lest they be defined by stupid decisions decades earlier.
But then it turned out that a woman had accused Fairfax of sexual assault. These allegations did not come out of the blue. The woman went to the Washington Post in 2017.
The Post says it called people who knew Fairfax in college, law school, and socially and no one’s ever heard of him engaging in any sort of sexual misconduct. As for the accuser, the paper says they couldn’t corroborate her claim because “she had not told anyone what happened.” You mean she never told anyone until she first approached WaPo in 2017, or she didn’t tell anyone at the time and for a long time after it happened but then opened up to confidants much later? Because the latter would be the Christine Blasey Ford standard, of course.
It’s strange to me that someone who claims she was sexually assaulted would choose to tell her story for the very first time not to a friend or a spouse or a doctor or a cop or a therapist but to a newspaper. If it turns out that the accuser did tell a friend two years ago before she went to the paper, where does that leave us vis-a-vis the Ford standard?
And another question, also reminiscent of Ford vs. Kavanaugh: What’s the accuser’s motive to lie here, especially given the curious timing of her approach to WaPo? If you’re a partisan or someone who holds a grudge against a rising political star for whatever other reason and are willing to fabricate a tale of sexual assault to take him down, the obvious time to do so is before he’s installed in the important new job he’s seeking. Ford’s accusation broke big before the confirmation vote on Kavanaugh, after all. But Fairfax’s accuser waited until after his election as lieutenant governor to speak up and long before the Northam blackface scandal that’s put him on the brink of becoming governor of Virginia. Nor did she do any of the other things a motivated liar might do to put her target on the defensive, like call a media-friendly lawyer and hold a press conference laying out the assault accusation in lurid detail. There’s not even an obvious partisan motive: As noted in my earlier post, a photo exists of the accuser next to a smiling Nancy Pelosi, suggesting that she’s a Democrat just like Fairfax is.
If she’s lying, why would she lie this way, by quietly approaching a newspaper and then not forcing the issue somehow after they refused to run her story?
There are some differences with the accusations against Kavanaugh, although these do not reflect well on Fairfax. She’s making an allegation against Fairfax when he was an adult. She knows when and where the alleged assault occurred. Fairfax admits to spending the night with her. They’re members of the same political party, so this would not be a partisan smear.
I don’t think Fairfax should be surprised that a potential bad story he was aware of would become public the moment he was seen as a likely Governor. These things don’t stay secret in the #metoo era.
It would be terrible for an innocent man to be accused of a serious crime, but Fairfax has not handled the allegations well. He has made provably false statements about an allegation he knew existed, and then blamed another politician: Richmond mayor Levar Stoney for the sex assault allegations, after initially suggesting it may have been Northam.
(Fairfax) softened his suggestion as he left the Capitol Monday night, telling reporters he had “no indication” that Mr. Northam was responsible.
But in the same conversation, Mr. Fairfax hinted that Levar Stoney, the mayor of Richmond and a potential rival to Mr. Fairfax for the 2021 Democratic nomination for governor, may have played a role — praising the acumen of a reporter who inquired whether Mr. Stoney might have been responsible.
Asked if he had any involvement in leaking the claims of assault, which first surfaced Sunday night on a right-wing website, Mr. Stoney said, “The insinuation is 100 percent not true, and frankly it’s offensive.”
Fairfax and Stoney are both African American men under the age of 40, so their similar backgrounds and career trajectories could lead to conflict.
Looking at political forums, it seems liberals suspect Republican meddling, although the fact that the party was unable to get Northam’s yearbook during the campaign suggests the insiders aren’t that talented. This is an interesting trainwreck.