Virginia grapples with wave of political dysfunction

Janette Boyd-Martin, left, president of the Charlottesville NAACP Chapter, and Berdell Fleming, a retired school teacher. Copyright Jason Lappa for NBC News
By Courtney Buble with NBC News Politics
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State residents reeling from two weeks of controversy largely rooted in the state's racially fraught past that threatens to upend the present political landscape wonder when — and how — it all ends.


CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Virginia residents locked in a dizzying display of political dysfunction, the hits just keep coming.

And for those in this college town, still recovering after a rally by alt-right groups less than two years ago resulted in the death of anti-racism protester Heather Heyer and the conviction of the man who killed her, the sting of the past two weeks of scandals largely rooted in the state's racially-charged past — and its legacy in the present — has felt all too familiar.

"I just feel like we were slapped on one cheek, and here it goes again," said costumier Tricia Emle. "There's a lot of bad history here."

First came news of a photo on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook page featuring individuals in a Klan outfit and blackface. Then Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax faced allegations that he had sexually assaulted a woman years earlier, with a second women making similar claims on Friday; he has denied both claims. In the midst of the continuing fallout over those stories, a picture was published of a younger Attorney General Mark Herring in a costume that included blackface.

Locals here reacted to the newly-uncovered history this week with a range of emotions, from disgust to disappointment to shoulder-shrugging resignation — though few expressed surprise.

Some, like Sarah Spangler, did say it was "shocking to see how pervasive it is throughout our government."

"It wasn't just one. It was obviously a cultural problem in Virginia at the time," said University of Virginia data scientist, 29.

But that's why residents like Jabril Carter, 25, employee at the Market Street Market, said they weren't shocked at all by the news: after all, he said, the governor "wasn't the only person doing it back then."

"Looking back at 1984, that is what all of them were doing, painting blackface, it was just normal," said driver Ebenezer McCarthy.

"My initial thought was nothing surprises me anymore with anybody, Republicans or Democrats," said Chaps Ice Cream owner Tony LaBua.

A few said the news doesn't reflect the state they know now — but they worried that for some beyond its borders, it might.

"It's sad to see these things reclaiming the spotlight, just because I don't think it's reflective of who we are as a people, as the commonwealth of Virginia, and really as a country," said Robert Andrews, president of the University of Virginia College Republicans.

Many said the latest wave of scandals had a slightly different feel than the 2017 maelstrom that rocked their hometown. The fact that they didn't involve a pack of agitators and outsiders, but the upper echelon of the state's political establishment, called for an even deeper reckoning with the past, they said — and how difficult it remained to address many of these issues in the present.

The litany of incidents on campus and across the state had left many residents "desensitized," said first-year University of Virginia student Selena Johnson. But since the Northam news broke, she said the staff for the university's student paper, The Cavalier Daily, had been "going through UVA's old yearbooks and trying to find these pictures to call themselves out for past racism."

Robert Andrews, President of the UVA College Republicans.
Robert Andrews, President of the UVA College Republicans.Jason Lappa

"So I find that really refreshing," she said.

The blackface-related stories in particular, said Deborah McDowell, director of the university's Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, should be treated less as isolated incidents and more as representative of a wider culture.

"The problem with focusing on these repeated episodes of blackface — and they are repeated — is that they tend to be treated as 'exceptional' cases. They are not," she said.

"We just don't want people to just get upset about racist pictures and language," said local NAACP president Janette Boyd Martin, a 35-year resident of the city. "We want people to get upset about racist policies."


For a few, the latest round of controversies felt personal.

The university's College Democrats — many of whom campaigned for Northam, Fairfax and Herring — had reacted with a sense of deep "betrayal," said the group's president Jackson Samples, who described members as "morally...appalled and disgusted."

Still, some said that unlike the aftermath of the rally that rocked the state two years ago, this time the past shouldn't be allowed to shape the present — or at least, that it shouldn't completely upend the current political landscape.

P.K. Ross, 35, a barista at Splendora's Ice Cream and Gelato, said she'd never been a Northam fan — but wasn't convinced the latest news disqualified him from office. "I think people are allowed to change," she said.

McCarthy, who is black, sounded a similar note. "For me they shouldn't resign, because what kind of president we have?" he said.


Paralegal Linda Ginsberg, who came to the area from Boston 12 years ago, said that what Northam had done years ago was "incredibly insensitive and stupid" — but shouldn't affect his ability to perform in his current role. "I don't see how it is still an issue for him," she said.

But most of those she spoke with, she said, disagreed.

The newly-discovered past, said many, did require a real reckoning in the present, with the truth followed by consequences for those embroiled by scandal. "I think they should man up themselves and say 'Hey, what we did was wrong and we are terribly sorry, we shouldn't be here,'" said LaBua.

No matter how the latest situations are resolved, said Rev. Phillip Faig of the Downtown Baptist Church in Alexandria, moving on is likely to be complicated — both for the politicians involved, and for the weary and unsettled state they currently lead.

"Any issue of race or sexual harassment or assault like we saw, like we've seen recently in Virginia, there's no debating that, in the Christian community it's wrong." The issue now, said the senior pastor: "How do you handle redemption?"

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