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What the Hell Is Going on in Virginia?

Two of the top three state officials have admitted to wearing blackface in the ’80s. The other has been credibly accused of sexual assault

Virginia AG Mark Herring, Gov. Ralph Northam; Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax

AP/REX/Shutterstock; Steve Helber/AP/REX/Shutterstock; AP/REX/Shutterstock

Ralph Northam is still the governor of Virginia.

The Democrat has yet to step down in the wake of a bizarre blackface controversy that has led nearly every prominent party leader to call for his resignation, including his state’s two senators. But if and when Northam does step aside, the line of succession doesn’t get any less problematic. Next up would be Justin Fairfax, the state’s lieutenant governor who is currently embroiled in allegations of sexual assault. After that, it’s the state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, who on Wednesday announced that he, too, wore blackface in the 1980s, adding another layer of absurdity on top of what has become one of the most surreal political fiascos in recent memory.

“In 1980, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college, some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song,” Herring said in a statement. “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it. But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes — and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others — we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”

The race to the bottom began last Friday, when a photo from Northam’s medical school yearbook page featuring a man in blackface and another wearing a KKK hood surfaced online. Northam released a statement admitting that he was one of the figures, but did not specify if he was in blackface or under the white hood. During a press conference the next day, Northam said he was not in the photo, but acknowledged that he did once wear blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest in San Antonio. When a reporter asked him if he was still able to do the moonwalk, he surveyed the stage as if he were considering to attempt the move before his wife grabbed him and said the “circumstances” were not “appropriate.” Northam laughed it off.

Northam has since been convening with his staff to discuss how to avoid resigning. If he were to do so, Fairfax would take his place. Maybe. Just as it looked as if Fairfax would soon be assuming the state’s highest office, he was accused of sexual assault by Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor of politics at Scripps College in California, who alleges that Fairfax forced himself on her in a hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Tyson has hired Katz, Marshall & Banks, the same legal team that represented Christine Blasey Ford, who alleges Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school. Though Fairfax has called the allegation “false,” Tyson on Wednesday released a remarkable statement detailing the abuse.

If Fairfax, too, is forced to step down, Herring would be next in line, but the attorney general doesn’t seem to be in much better shape than Northam. Blackface is blackface.

Fourth in line is Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox, who took control of the Virginia House of Delegates by virtue of a coin toss. Last November’s statehouse race between Republican David Yancey and Democrat Shelly Simonds ended in a tie, with 11,608 votes going to each candidate. Virginia state law holds that a post-recount tie be settled by pulling a name out of a hat. The state’s board of elections pulled Yancey’s name, which not only gave him the seat but turned control of the state’s legislature over to Republicans. After a pair of blackface scandals and a sexual assault allegation, that random drawing could now give the GOP control of the Governor’s Mansion, as well.

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