Ed Note: Normally The Blue View prints original content only but we are making an exception in the case of a constituent letter dealing with the current turmoil in Richmond posted on Facebook by Del. Mark Keam (D- 35) on Friday, Feb. 15. We think Keam has done a public service by drawing a closely-reasoned road map through a complex and historically important controversy – whether you agree with him or not. In sum, Keam concludes that Gov. Ralph Northam has shown an “apparent lack of sincere regret” and can no longer function effectively as governor. By contrast, Atty. Gen. Mark Herring holds a less sensitive position than Northam and has been in any case more forthright. Finally, Keam says Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax must go because when there is no corroborating evidence in a sexual assault case, “I tend to believe the victim.”
Mark Keam’s constituent email newsletter in full:
During the past decade that I served in the Virginia legislature, I’ve tried to send you a regular “Richmond Report” email every week that the House is in session.
Last week, I did not write a newsletter because it was unlike any other week I’ve had in the General Assembly.
In fact, the past two weeks have been extraordinary and unprecedented in Virginia government, so I wanted to take some time to absorb and to reflect on all that has happened.
On February 1 (the first day of African American History Month), the Commonwealth was rocked by a shocking revelation that our Governor may have been associated with a racially insensitive past.
As everyone has seen by now, a photo appeared in an old medical school yearbook of a man wearing an offensive “blackface” make up standing next to a man in a horrendous Ku Klux Klan outfit, both drinking beers.
The controversy, of course, is the fact that this photo appeared on the same page as photos and quotes of Ralph Northam who was attending that medical school at that time in 1984.
Two full weeks and many press inquiries later, we still do not know how that photo ended up on the future Governor’s year book page.
The Governor added to the confusion by first acknowledging his role and apologizing for the photo, and then, on the next day, walking back his apology by asserting that he was not in the photo.
He did admit that, during the same year as the disputed photo from Virginia, he put on a black face in Texas as part of a dance contest.
He also admitted that he didn’t realize what he did at age 25 (putting shoe polish on his face to resemble an African American) was an offensive act until he was 57 when he discussed that experience with an African American staff person.
In response, on the first evening of the scandal on February 1, I joined most of my colleagues who serve in state and federal elected offices in Virginia and called on Governor Northam to step down from his post.
My full statement was posted publicly on my social media, but here’s the bottom line:
“My constituents deserve a leader who does not bring such a racially charged imagery to the highest office in the Commonwealth. It pains me to do so, but I must ask the Governor to resign immediately.”
I realize that Gov. Northam’s conduct of 35 years ago does not reflect the public servant he is today. I also respect the fact that he was duly elected by voters and that we shouldn’t seek to overturn the will of the people so soon after the elections.
But based on his ambiguous and conflicting public responses that question his credibility, and the level of controversy clouding his integrity and reputation, I believed then, and I continue to believe now, that it is difficult for Gov. Northam to fully execute the duties of his office.
The week after the Governor found himself in controversy, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax’s past conduct also came to light.
First, on Monday, February 4, a woman came forward alleging that Lt. Gov. Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2004 when they were both at a conference in Boston.
Second, on Friday, February 8, another woman came forward alleging that Lt. Gov. Fairfax raped her in 2000 when they were attending college together in North Carolina.
Lt. Gov. Fairfax has acknowledged that he knows both women, but strongly denied the allegations, explaining that they were consensual rather than coerced sexual relationships. He then called for full investigations of the claims.
As soon as I learned about these assertions, I issued a public statement urging Lt. Gov. Fairfax to resign:
“It’s clear that Justin Fairfax needs to resolve this potentially criminal legal matter, and it’s also clear that he shouldn’t be doing so while presiding over the Senate. I therefore call on him to step down immediately from his public position.”
I believe that any allegation of sexual assault should be taken with utmost seriousness, and if it involves a public official, it must be investigated to the fullest.
As an attorney, I support providing every accused person all available due process and the opportunity to explain the situation.
However, in a case like these two incidents where there is no corroborating evidence to prove other than the words of a woman alleging the assault and a man denying it, I tend to believe the victim.
In addition to calling for his resignation, one of my House colleagues last week proposed that the legislature pursue impeachment proceedings against the Lt. Governor.
A formal impeachment request has not been filed to date, but the Speaker of the House has indicated his willingness to pursue such an avenue if law enforcement authorities in the other states do not follow up on the allegations.
As if these simultaneous scandals involving the top two elected officials in the Commonwealth weren’t enough, the third statewide elected official – Attorney General Mark Herring – disclosed last week that he, too, had once worn a black face.
Attorney General Herring explained that his circumstance took place when he was 19 years old, when he and his friends attended a college party dressed up like an African American rap artist.
He voluntarily came forward on his own accord to apologize for his past racist behavior and took pains to explain that he has never acted racially inappropriate since that time.
While I am very disappointed in what Attorney General Herring had done as a young man, I did not call on him to resign like I have with the other two statewide officials because I believe the third scandal is different than the other two in many ways.
First, the job of a Governor vastly different that the job of the Attorney General.
A Governor must lead and manage the entire state government operations, not just one agency as the Attorney General does, and his day-to-day involvement is crucial to the well-being of the state.
The Governor’s responsibilities are especially heavy during a legislative session because he must decide whether to sign or veto every bill that the legislature passes. If the Governor does not support a legislative measure, he and his staff must work closely with the sponsor of the bill and with other legislators to amend the bill throughout the complicated legislative process.
The demands of this level of negotiations necessitates an active Governor who must play a hands-on role throughout the legislative session, unlike the passive role that an Attorney General has working with the legislature.
This is not a hypothetical theory as I witnessed this negative impact myself.
During the past two weeks as Gov. Northam secluded himself from any public or private appearances, his lack of personal involvement with legislative negotiations did impact the ability of the legislature to craft bills in a more effective way.
Second, although there are clear similarities between the offensive behavior of a young Ralph Northam and a young Mark Herring, the differences are important to me.
Based on how Gov. Northam handled the disclosure (first admitting to being in the photo before denying it), the apparent lack of sincere regret (for example, making light of whether he can still “moonwalk” like Michael Jackson), launching of a public relations campaign (hiring an African American-owned PR firm based in DC) followed by the announcement of an apology tour (leaking to the press that he’s reading Alex Haley’s “Roots”), I believe the Governor needs more time to come to terms with the seriousness of his past conduct and its current impact on the people of the Commonwealth.
The Governor announced that he wants to spend the rest of his 4-year term working on “racial reconciliation” issues. I applaud his goals, but I believe our Commonwealth can be better served as if he were to pursue these virtuous paths as a private citizen.
As I told a reporter in this article Governor Northam has already had opportunities to demonstrate his leadership on racial equality issues, but he failed to do so.
One good example of his lack of interest in the plight of African Americans is described in this commentary referring to my efforts to have Governor Northam oppose a hazardous methane compressor station to support an environmentally detrimental fracked gas pipeline.
Since February 1, I have spent a lot of time talking with constituents who believe that one, two or all three of our statewide officials should resign, and others who believe we should forgive and let them remain in office.
I have also spoken with many constituents and others who are concerned about the impact of these controversies on upcoming elections.
Many of my Democratic friends are particularly troubled that the ongoing scandals could prevent the Democrats from taking over the majority in the House of Delegates and the State Senate
As I reflect on the past two weeks, I am reminded that this is the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of the Virginia House of Delegates. It has also been 400 years since the first Africans were brought to these shores against their will to work as slaves.
And for four centuries, Virginia has been home to numerous painful episodes of inhumane treatment of fellow human beings based on legal status, race, gender, sexual orientation, religions, geography, and culture.
If the past two weeks teach us anything, it is that Virginians – and all Americans – must recognize that racism and sexism have existed and continue to exist in every sector of our society.
But to address these systematic problems, I believe one crucial step is for those with privileges to search within themselves to recognize these problems and proactively seek to change them to address the pain of those without such privileges.
As a state legislator, I will continue to work on these difficult issues by acknowledging our past but seeking to create a better future for all of us.
And, as long as Governor Northam, Lieutenant Governor Fairfax and Attorney General Herring remain in office, I will look for ways to work with them on these common goals.
Photo: Va. Del. Mark Keam (D- 35) and state Sen. Chap Petersen (D- 34) at a town hall meeting in Vienna on January 27/ Photo by Susan Laume