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The Latest On Virginia's Political Scandals


It's hard to imagine that it was just over a week ago that a racist yearbook photograph rocked Virginia's capital. A lot has happened since then. To recap, Governor Ralph Northam admitted to wearing blackface in a photo in his med school yearbook. Then he denied it. Then he admitted he did wear blackface on one separate occasion. Now he tells The Washington Post he wants to devote the remainder of his term to racial reconciliation.

Attorney General Mark Herring also announced that he had donned blackface on one occasion. Meanwhile, two sexual assault allegations have surfaced against the lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax. None of them has resigned, despite pressure from heavyweights in their state and the national party. From Richmond, NPR's Colin Dwyer looks at whether these three men can really hope to hang onto office.

COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: It's been just a few weeks since Governor Northam spoke at Richmond's historically black Virginia Union University. So when student government president Jamon Phenix saw the photo in Northam's yearbook, it felt like a personal betrayal.

JAMON PHENIX: I felt heartache.

DWYER: And Phenix also felt that it was time for a change in the governor's mansion.

PHENIX: This is something that we don't need. This is something that we don't look forward to. And it's not intrinsic to who we are as a younger generation looking to the future.

DWYER: But that future may well still include Virginia's embattled leaders, all three of whom have defied calls to step down. Alison Dagnes is a professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. She's been studying and writing about political scandals for a long time, and she says something has changed lately in the way that leaders handle them. They've got the benefit of deep political polarization, the growth of partisan media and now the model of President Trump, who has often survived his scandals simply by riding out the news cycle.

ALISON DAGNES: That has served an unfortunate lesson now for politicians who are in office. And this is regardless of party because Northam, of course, is a Democrat.

DWYER: So are the next two men in line for his job if he does resign. But Fairfax, the lieutenant governor, may not last long enough to see that happen. A state lawmaker says he plans to begin impeachment proceedings against the black politician, who has denied the rape allegations. It would be more difficult to dislodge his colleagues, who have admitted to wearing blackface and who have vowed to complete their terms. But Dagnes says they may be missing the point.

DAGNES: When politicians are given the cue that if they just keep their mouth closed and they disappear for a little while, it'll all go away, they're wrong. They may keep their job, but at what cost?

DWYER: Gregory Howard, an interim dean at Virginia Union University, says Northam and Herring should not get to dictate the terms of their own rehabilitation.

GREGORY HOWARD: Every now and again, we slip up, we fall, and we have a responsibility to dust ourselves off and seek for full healing and reconciliation - but reconciliation that is based upon the one who has been offended - not the offender.

DWYER: Because, according to Howard, there is a lot more at stake here than political office.

HOWARD: This is not a partisan issue. This is not a political issue. This is a matter of humanity and morality.

DWYER: And, he adds, right now, the national spotlight is on Virginia to see how it responds.

Colin Dwyer, NPR News, Richmond, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF LA RIVIERA SONG, "SANS LENDEMAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.