If you are interested in scandal-free government, do not ask Virginia Democrats. Over the past few weeks scandals have ensnared many of the Commonwealth’s top elected officials, including Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring.

Gov. Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook page depicts two men, one in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan Robes. (Eastern Virginia Medical School)
Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page depicts two men, one in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan Robes. (Eastern Virginia Medical School)

A scandal over racist overtones in his college and medical school yearbooks has enveloped Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Mr. Northam’s college yearbook lists “Coonman” as his nickname. His medical school yearbook page includes a photograph of two men, one in blackface and the other dressed as a Ku Klux Klansman. Mr. Northam initially acknowledged, then denied, that he was the one in blackface.

Separately, Mr. Herring acknowledged that he too had once worn blackface in college when he dressed in costume as an African-American pop musicians. Finally, a woman recently came forward to accuse Mr. Fairfax of sexual assault.

What’s Oppo and Vulnerability Research

Opposition research is a deep dive into your opponent’s background to uncover anything that potentially could be used against him or her. Vulnerability research is the same thing conducted on yourself.

A Google search or a news media dump alone does not qualify as research. Those are merely starting points. Researchers must step away from their computers and go through the target’s entire life. That means trips to courthouses, deed offices, libraries and dusty archives, and interviews with people who knew the candidates earlier in their careers of in college.

None of the people who ran against the governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general in either the primary or the general election apparently did not conduct effective oppo research. The campaigns also either did not hire a vulnerability researcher, the candidates forgot their earlier transgressions or neglected to tell their staff and consultants about their pasts.

How Not to Handle a Scandal

Mr. Northam’s response to the scandals was horrific. Future college textbooks may well cite it as the penultimate example of what not to do when faced with a political scandal and public relations disaster.

Hours after a conservative blog revealed Mr. Northam’s medical school photo, he issued a press statement acknowledging that it was he in the photo. “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” he said.

Less than 24 hours later, he called a press conference to deny it. “I reflected with my family and classmates from the time and affirmed to [sic] my conclusion that I am not the person in that photo,” he said. Mr. Northam then proceeded to make things worse. He admitted that his Virginia Military Institute classmates did call him “Coonman,” but claimed to not know why. The actual headline from a Politico report on the press conference was  “6 Moments of Weirdness with Ralph Northam.”

White Men in Black and Brown Face

In an apparent effort get ahead of another damaging story that had begun to circulate among political insiders, Mr. Northam said he took part in a dance contest where he “darkened” his face in a portrayal of Michael Jackson. He said he had only used a little bit of shoe polish on his face “because, I don’t know if anybody has ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off.” Mr. Northam said he had won the contest because of his moonwalk dance and seemed on the verge of demonstrating it to reporters.

Further, Mr. Herring issued a February 6th statement acknowledging that he had worn blackface while imitating an unidentified rap star at a college party.

White male statewide Virginia elected officials seem to have a great sense of respect for the Witmark brothers — the vaudeville actors who blackened their faces and performed in minstrel shows. The brothers also wrote “Coon Tunes.” Unlike office holders in the Old Dominion, this author knows how racist and offensive that sounds, but that is what people called these songs in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Thank Heaven for Life’s Little Ironies

For those who appreciate irony, the current Mr. Fairfax and Mr. Herring scandals are for you. A college professor from California claims Mr. Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

If that sounds familiar, it should. In the midst of his confirmation hearings, a California college professor accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. The only difference between Mr. Fairfax and Mr. Kavanaugh is that, as of February 7th, not a single Democratic elected official has demanded that Mr. Fairfax step aside.

Before Mr. Herring admitted that he also had blacked his face in college, and after Mr. Northam’s Moonwalk press conference, the attorney general had demanded that the governor resign. Mr. Herring said, “It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down.” It goes without saying that Mr. Herring has not called on himself to quit.

The past week has left Virginia a political laughing stock, known for scandals and political incompetence.


Matthew Tallmer is a former congressional staffer who has been involved in Virginia politics. 

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