Virginia politics descended further into chaos on Wednesday, and Democrats in the capital grew more dismayed by the possibility that a trio of scandals involving their top three statewide officials had laid waste to years of work building up the Democratic Party in the commonwealth.
The controversies have created a pseudo-standoff between scandal-plagued Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, all of whom are fighting to hang on to their jobs as public outrage grows around each of them.
None of them wants to resign first, creating a scenario where all of them could hold on to their positions because of the utter chaos around the Capitol.
That, said a longtime Democratic operative, would not be good for the party.
“If they are all three there around the next statewide elections, it is really problematic,” the Democrat said. “I think that is tough to explain to voters.”
The operative added: “I think where we are today doesn’t cause permanent damage, but if they stick around then it could.”
The latest blow came Wednesday, when Herring, a two-term Democrat, admitted to appearing in blackface at a 1980 party, releasing a statement to get ahead of persistent rumors that something had happened during his years at University of Virginia.
To make matters more dismal, Vanessa Tyson, the woman who has accused Fairfax of sexual assault, released a compelling and lengthy statement describing — in detail — her 2004 encounter with Fairfax, forcing the Democrat to once again deny her accusations.
All this built upon the now days-long controversy engulfing Northam’s administration after the mild-mannered Democrat admitted — and later denied — that he was in a racist photo that appeared in his medical school yearbook. Northam, in a stunning revelation on Saturday, told reporters that while he wasn’t in that photo, he did dress up in blackface to mimic Michael Jackson in a 1980s dance contest.
The one-two punch of revelations on Wednesday about Herring and Fairfax left many Democrats in Richmond in a state of shock, dismayed by their top elected officials and appalled that these were the men representing them in the upper echelons of state politics.
These Democrats, many of whom had spent years turning the state more solidly blue and had worked to help elect the three lawmakers, were emotional and shaken by the stories.
“What is worse than a dumpster fire?” said another veteran Democratic operative after yet another grueling day in Richmond.
Louise Lucas, a long-serving Democratic state senator, broke down outside the Capitol and put her head in her hands as reporters hounded her for a comment on Herring.
Democratic operatives, beleaguered by several days of astonishing stories and overwhelming developments, grew jumpy at every email, text or Twitter alert on their phones.
“Party officials, activists, volunteers are emotionally drained and heartbroken by the seemingly endless controversy,” said a top Democrat. “Activists are afraid to look at their phones on what might pop up next.”
And visibly pained state lawmakers dodged cameras and reporters as they tried — with difficulty — to keep their focus on legislation during what is considered the busiest time of year for the deliberative body.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Don McEachin, an African-American representative whose career in Virginia politics began over two decades ago. “It’s an absolute nightmare.”
The concern among Democrats is that the string of damaging stories could have ramifications in legislative elections later this year and, more critically, when statewide Democrats run in 2020 and 2021.
“Virginia Republicans’ fortunes have changed radically in just 72 hours,” said Chris LaCivita, a longtime Republican strategist. “Democrats have been let down by their top leaders on the issues that they claim ownership of.”
He added: “But that alone won’t be enough. The GOP needs to demonstrate it can lead in a time of crisis, because the Democrats have abdicated their ability.”
The hope among Republicans is that voters will now associate Democrats with the party of chaos, especially because they have dominated statewide elections in recent years.
It’s a scenario that would have been unthinkable on Friday, when the response to the racist photo in Northam’s yearbook was swift and direct: It’s time to step down.
Northam, after a bizarre news conference on Saturday, has hung on by keeping his head down and operating behind closed doors. The governor hired a crisis communicator on Wednesday and met with two top civil rights leaders, an adviser to the governor said, the latest in a string of signs that he doesn’t plan to go anywhere.
After Wednesday, most political watchers here in the capital believe Northam’s hold on his job may be the tightest.
They’re less sure about Fairfax, who called Tyson’s extensive statement of her allegations against him “painful” to read even as he vehemently denied them.
“I have never done anything like what she suggests,” he said in his own statement. “As I said in my statement this morning, I have nothing to hide.”
Tyson’s statement — along with the fact that she hired the same law firm that represented Dr. Christine Blasey Ford during Ford’s allegations last year against now Supreme Court Justice Brent Kavanaugh — was a sign to Fairfax and his team that the story wasn’t going anywhere.
In an ironic twist, Rakesh Kilaru, a partner with Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz, told CNN that they were representing Fairfax in his attempts to deal with the allegations against him. The law firm also represented Kavanaugh in the face of Ford’s allegations.
Tyson’s statement also left some Virginia lawmakers ready to try to push Fairfax out.
“I believe Dr. Vanessa Tyson,” said Jennifer Wexton, a freshman congresswoman from Northern Virginia.
For some lawmakers, many of whom wanted to talk about anything other than the scandals roiling Richmond, it was almost too much to take.
State Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, a Republican who lost a bid for lieutenant governor to Fairfax in 2017, dismissed reporters asking about the allegations against her onetime opponent.
When asked if she still wanted to be lieutenant governor, she responded wryly.
“That,” she said, “is the only thing I can predict won’t happen.”