by Charles Ellison | Publisher’s Riff | @ellisonreport
First, let’s establish this: if you don’t live in Virginia, are not from Virginia, have no family connection to Virginia and don’t care what happens these days in Virginia, well … you should. Regardless of your background, the fracas that presents us with new sordid twists each day is rife with symbolism and significant consequences. “Blackface” - its history (you should start reading up on it) and use mired in centuries-old violence against Black people - can’t be easily dismissed as trivial national preoccupation with a prank. And the fact that some view it that way means schools, a pinnacle of a free civil society, are miserably failing at the basic function of providing essential social studies for all children. If they weren’t failing, it’s very likely blackface wouldn’t be an issue because everyone would know the history and everyone would know better.
That’s just the tip of it. Virginia is, after all, the place of historical record where American slavery officially started, where the first African slaves (that we know of) arrived at Jamestown port in 1619. This debacle happening in Richmond now is right on the 400-year mark anniversary of that sad moment. Politicians are under fire, right now, for use of blackface in a city - Richmond - that once housed the official headquarters of a treasonous armed uprising that defended racist slavery and was responsible for the deaths of 800,000 Americans over 150 years ago. Now, 150 years later, it’s also a highly coveted presidential battleground state that’s becoming increasingly diverse (an uncomfortable reality for those still clinging on to Confederate traditions). As Democrats find themselves besieged in Virginia, it may put the state in decent play for Trump to capture in 2020. It just got over a bruising gubernatorial election in 2017, and a set of state legislative elections that were so close that participants had to determine power in the House based on a bowl drawing. That same legislature, both House and Senate, face fresh elections in 2019.
So, What Happens Now?
We’ll need to deploy a bit of game theory to sort out the situation. There are a bundle of likely scenarios we envision playing out in Richmond. We can’t rank these at the moment in order of what’s more likely, but we can offer our best assessment:
With all three of Virginia’s top elected officials and top Democrats facing intense public outrage from scandal, there is conventional wisdom that all three could resign. If so, that would complete a bloodless coup by Republican operatives and effectively gives the governorship to House Speaker Kirk Cox (R). The president pro-tempore of the Virginia Senate, who is now Republican Sen. Steve Newman, would “assume the duties” of Lieutenant Governor. A Republican takes over as Attorney General since the legislature would appoint a new AG - that appointment may depend on when the legislature is in session, however, and there could be an opening for the Governor to do it.
Right now, there are no calls for Attorney General Mark Herring to resign. And, it’s highly likely that’s not happening - unless something else comes out or there is new visual evidence. Democrats definitely need for Herring to just stay put since it’s becoming clear that Republicans have managed a masterful opposition research play. So, there could be a scenario where we have Gov. Cox (R), Lt. Gov. Newman (R) and AG Herring (D).
At the moment, Northam is insisting that he’s going nowhere. But, all three Democrats staying put is not a likely scenario - will explain in a minute. What is somewhat likely is a scenario where Northam becomes an Independent because he now owes Democrats nothing and he certainly blames Republicans now for what’s happened. It is something currently under consideration, according to sources.
What is highly likely, at the moment, is that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) will at some point resign. The sexual assault allegations against him are way too heavy. The allegations have escalated from uncorroborated innuendo to something extremely credible after accuser Vanessa Tyson’s public statement painstakingly detailing the alleged assault. In this particular case, the force of #MeToo is, understandably, much stronger and career-ending than the reaction to #blackface. It’s also highly unlikely Fairfax will recover from this politically … ever.
If Fairfax resigns, one scenario is that Northam, as an Independent, stays mad at his former party, does not owe them a thing and allows for Newman to step in as Lt. Governor. So, there’s a possibility that you have Gov. Northam (I), Lt. Gov. Newman (R), and AG Herring (D). But, maybe not: Northam could be just as mad at Republicans for engineering his downfall as he is Democrats for kicking him to the curb.
Or, given Northam’s reputation as a somewhat affable negotiator who searches for common ground, perhaps he fills that vacancy (see Article V, Section 7 of the Virginia Constitution) left behind by Fairfax with his own pick once the Virginia General Assembly is out of session on Feb. 23rd. That effectively cancels out Newman. And perhaps Northam picks another Independent. Who knows …
Or, we could have a situation where all parties involved, including the Democratic Party, are running the clock all the way to Feb. 23rd when the Virginia General Assembly is expected out of session. Calls for resignation will continue, but 1) anything can happen between now and then to suddenly disrupt the news cycle and 2) all those involved can see what lies at the end of the that tunnel and what arrangements can be made. For Democrats, however, that desperate attempt to hold on to power at all costs is a very risky scenario in terms of how it looks to voters - and Democrats, unlike Republicans, won’t know how to respond to that.
But, another possible scenario is that Northam eventually resigns - after cutting a deal with Democrats to pick the next Lt. Governor who then becomes the next Governor upon Northam’s resignation - and who then appoints the next Lt. Governor. After some discussion, Northam agrees to resign on condition he’s offered a new, fresh-start beginning in the aftermath, something that includes a special project or initiative he can work on that helps him rehabilitate his public legacy. Democrats make the offer and before Northam resigns, he fills the Fairfax vacancy and a game of political music chairs begins. That last scenario also carries optical risks, especially if details of a deal (or at least a hint dropped that a deal even took place) leak to an angered public that will make Democrats pay for it in 2019, 2020 and 2021.