Northam's Latest Gambit to Change the Subject Flops
Do not for one moment allow yourself to believe Tuesday’s action in Richmond had anything to do with gun control. Instead, let’s call the 90-minute special session of the Virginia legislature what it was – a desperate bid by the commonwealth’s top elected Democrats to change the subject, and a steadfast rebuke from the legislature’s majority Republicans.
Earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam was revealed to have had on his medical school yearbook page a photo of two men, one in blackface, the other in Klan hood and robe. Northam initially apologized for the insensitivity; then, less than 24 hours later, reversed himself and said he was neither man in the photograph – even as he simultaneously acknowledged donning blackface on another occasion.
The outrage was palpable. Demands for his immediate resignation came from all over the state and beyond.
Interestingly, it wasn’t Republicans who demanded his resignation – it was Virginia Democrats, led by state party Chairwoman Susan Swecker, who issued a statement insisting on Northam’s immediate resignation. She wasn’t the only one: Within 36 hours, she had been joined by the state’s two U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine; the state congressional delegation’s senior African American member, Congressman Bobby Scott; former Gov. Terry McAuliffe; and, perhaps most powerfully, former Gov. Doug Wilder, the first African American to be elected governor of Virginia.
And it wasn’t just Democrats in the state who call for the governor’s resignation – national Democrat leaders, too, demanded he go. Congresswoman Karen Bass of California, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, criticized Northam and added, “What he should do is resign.” Democratic Governors Association Chairwoman (and Rhode Island governor) Gina Raimondo and Vice Chairman Phil Murphy (governor of New Jersey) issued a statement calling on Northam to step down, calling the photo “racist and inexcusable.”
All seemed to be headed in the direction of Northam’s resignation … until, that is, his presumed successor, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, was accused of sexual assault by not one, but two, credible accusers. And then Attorney General Mark Herring – who would have ascended to the governorship had both Northam and Fairfax vacated their offices – acknowledged that, despite having already joined the calls for Northam’s resignation based on Northam’s acknowledgement of having worn blackface, he, too, had once done the same thing while in college.
With all three top Democrats under pressure to step aside, Virginia Democrats’ hypocrisy had nowhere to hide. It was easy to demand that Northam step down, when Democrats were safe in the belief that a fellow party member, Fairfax, would step up. And even when Fairfax came under fire, there was still another Democrat, Herring, in line, and that made calling for Fairfax’s resignation tenable. But when Herring acknowledged he was guilty of the same sin as Northam, and the next guy in line was a … REPUBLICAN … well, that’s when the calls for resignations had to stop.
But with all 140 seats in the General Assembly up for election in November, and control of the 2021 redistricting at stake, stopping the calls for resignation wasn't enough. It was a start, but it wasn’t enough.
So, in the wake of the May 31 Virginia Beach mass shooting that left 13 dead, Gov. Northam issued a call for a special session to consider gun control measures that either had already failed to pass the legislature or that would have had no effect in preventing the Virginia Beach shooting.
Universal background check? The Virginia Beach shooter legally purchased the firearms he used in the attack. “Assault weapons” ban? The Virginia Beach shooter used handguns. “One-gun-a-month purchase” law? The Virginia Beach shooter used two handguns in his attack; he purchased one in 2016 and the other in 2018. None of these proposals – or the others offered by Northam – would have prevented the May mass shooting.
That the Republicans who control both houses of the Virginia legislature saw through the governor’s ruse and shut down their special sessions as quickly they did is a good thing for the cause of good government. They should be commended for refusing to allow the governor to distract the public’s attention.
Established 400 years ago this month, the Virginia General Assembly is revered as “the oldest continuous law-making body in the New World.” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all served in the body before going on to greater service – commanding the Continental Army, writing the Declaration of Independence, co-authoring the Constitution of the United States, leading the new nation as president. To paraphrase Dwight Eisenhower, if they were alive today, they’d roll over in their graves if they saw what Virginia’s Democrats were trying to do at this week’s special session. Congratulations to the Republicans who didn’t let them get away with it. Their refusal to allow the distraction made Tuesday’s events a “special session,” indeed.