Before I say anything about the Ralph Northan and Justin Fairfax kerfuffles, I have to start on the subject of abortion and, specifically, third trimester abortion, because that is really the issue that started the right wingers looking for things to attack Northam over. And it is, in my opinion, an entirely illegitimate issue. It’s hard to find reliable statistics, but all of what is out there shows late term abortions as under 2% of the total. The problem with statistics is that different places define late term in different ways, anywhere from after 18 to 24 weeks. The key thing is that nobody is advocating performing abortions at the moment of birth, despite what the anti-choice elements want you to believe. The laws that remove restrictions on third-term abortions are intended to prevent criminalizing abortions done for the sake of women’s lives or because of severe fetal abnormalities, e.g. anencephaly (lack of a brain).
The specific law that was being proposed in the Virginia legislature was introduced by Kathy Tran and would have loosened some restrictions on late term abortions. Current Virginia law allows terminating a third-trimester pregnancy if three physicians certify that the procedure is necessary to prevent a woman's death or to stave off substantial and irremediable health impacts. The proposed change – which: 1) has been proposed in the legislature in previous sessions, and 2) never made it to the House of Delegates floor for a vote – would change that to requiring only one physician’s certification and would remove the "substantial and irremediable" language, though still require confirmation of risk to the woman’s health.
So wat does this have to do with the governor? Well, he is a physician (specifically, a pediatric neurosurgeon), supported the bill, and gave a less than articulate response in a radio interview on the subject. He said that a hypothetical infant who was delivered in those circumstances would be kept comfortable and resuscitated if the parents wished. What this was intended to mean is that the parents would decide whether or not to put the baby on life support. Failure to provide extreme and unlikely to succeed life support is hardly infanticide. But certain right wing pundits portrayed this as if he said he supported infanticide and started digging for dirt on Dr. Northam.
And, oy, did they find something. Namely, a picture on his page in his medical school yearbook showing a guy in blackface and a guy in a KKK outfit. Both of them are holding cans and there is a quote about beer underneath, so a benign interpretation would be a dumb attempt at showing how beer brings even extremes together. Northam gave an apologetic speech that evening. Which might have worked if he hadn’t given a textbook example of how not to handle a press conference the next day. In that one, he contradicted his earlier speech, denied he was in the picture (and nobody knows who was in it) and says there must have been a mix-up in assembling the yearbook. But he had sort of done blackface by putting shoe polish on his face during a dance contest that year, when he was imitating Michael Jackson. He was on the verge of moonwalking to demonstrate, but his wife stopped him from that. Someone also dug up a yearbook from VMI (his undergraduate alma mater) in which there was a reference to his nickname being "coonman," which he said he couldn’t explain. I can think of possible benign explanations for that, but will concede his wimpiness on the subject looks suspect.
Despite increasing calls for him to resign, he’s been standing pat. For those who are going on about how this was 1984, not 1954, sorry, but on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, 1984 was pretty much like 1884. There’s no evidence that Northam has treated African-Americans badly and there is some evidence he has learned from those he knows. We know he’s evolved since he worked for Dubya before switching to the Democratic party. (Note that Virginia does not have party registration, so there is no evidence of party membership prior to his election to the state senate in 2007.) And I think he’s been a good governor, particularly in getting Medicaid expansion through the legislature and pushing (not quite so successfully) for gun control measures.
Note that Virginia governors are term-limited to a single term (a law that goes back to 1830, by the way). And nobody thought that he would run for President, because he's not exactly charismatic and (as demonstrated in this instance) has an even worse case of hoof in mouth disease than Joe Biden.
I don’t know about his initial political foray, since his senate seat was not in my district. But it’s pretty weird that none of this came out during his run for Lieutenant Governor in 2013 or the primary for the 2017 gubernatorial race. It’s less weird that Ed Gillespie didn’t raise it, given that Gillespie’s own campaign was highly racist and he could well have figured a hint of racism on Northam’s part would cut into his base.
Which brings me to the Justin Fairfax story. That amounts to a "he said, she said" about whether an incident in a hotel room in 2004 was or was not consensual. Fairfax hasn’t handled that well, either, making stronger claims about why the Washington Post didn’t publish the story when it first surfaced months ago than the newspaper itself has been claiming. I’ll also note that Fox News put out a story claiming Fairfax was blaming Northam for the increased attention on this story, which isn’t justified by anything in what he said. It is clear that the timing is related to the Northam story, but more likely that it comes from the right wing.
So what do I think? I’ve said before that I discount anything people did up to age 25, which is how old Northam was when the yearbook came out. I also deplore the quick rush to judgement – for example, I think Al Franken should not have resigned. However, I am concerned about the impact on his ability to govern and what that means for the future of the Democratic party in Virginia. And that matters ia lot this year, because we have legislative elections in odd years and the winner will control redistricting. If both Northam and Fairfax stepped down, Mark Herring, our Attorney General, would become governor. And I have a lot of respect for him. If Fairfax doesn’t step down, there could be an internal power fight between him and Herring in the 2021 gubernatorial race, which won’t do anybody any favors. (I would favor Herring in such a contest, entirely on the grounds of experience.)
I am also concerned about any impact this whole mess could have on Mark Warner’s reelection campaign in 2020. Admittedly, I am just assuming he will run for reelection to the U.S. Senate, but I don’t see why he wouldn’t. Though I wouldn’t be upset if he ran for President, I don’t think he is charismatic enough to win. And moderates are out of style, alas.
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