People who plan to run for elective office and want to know the value of opposition or vulnerability research should ask Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring. You also may want to speak with Ed Gillespie, John D. Adams, Jill Holtzman-Vogel, Tom Perrillo, and Gene Rossi. Anyone who wishes to know a thing or two about crisis communication may direct their inquiries to Governor Northam. If you are interested in scandal-free government, do not ask anyone in Virginia.
The governor of the Commonwealth has been enveloped in a scandal over racist comments and depictions in his college and medical school yearbooks; the former lists one of his nicknames as “Coonman” and the latter has on his page a photograph of two men, one in blackface and the other dressed as a Ku Klux Klansman. Mr. Northam and Mr. Herring, without being asked, both said they had worn blackface in college when they dressed as African-American pop musicians. A woman has accused Mr. Fairfax of sexual assault.
Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Adams and Ms. Holtman-Vogel were the Republican candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, respectively. Mr. Perrillo and Mr. Rossi took on Mr. Northam and Mr. Fairfax in the primaries. Mr. Herring did not face a primary challenge.
What’s Oppo and Vulnerability Research
For those who have never been involved in a political campaign, 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 appear to have conducted 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. It may well be cited in future college textbooks as the penultimate example of what not to do when faced with a political scandal and public relations disaster. For example, the actual headline of Politico’s coverage of a press conference the governor held was “6 Moments of Weirdness with Ralph Northam.”
Within hours of a conservative blog post that revealed the yearbook photo, Mr. Northam admitted that it was him in the medical school yearbook photo. The governor issued a press statement that said “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.”
But by that time, Mr. Northam had achieved the seemingly impossible: getting President Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to agree on something. And the subject of their agreement was that Mr. Northam should resign. Nearly every politician and political group in the Commonwealth echoed that sentiment. To give an indication of that, one of the first Virginia politicians who called for the governor to step down was Mr. Northam’s immediate predecessor as Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, under whom Mr. Northam served as lieutenant governor.
Less than 24 hours later, after reporters had uncovered his college nickname, Mr. Northam reversed himself. The governor held a press conference, in which he denied that it was he in the photograph after all. Northam said that since his original written statement, “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.”
Mr. Northam then proceeded to make things worse, if you can believe it. When asked about his Virginia Military Institute nickname, “Coonman,” the governor admitted people called him that but he did not know why.
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.
Mr. Herring, for his part, issued a February 6th statement that he, too, had donned blackface ‒ if you want to get technical he said he wore brown makeup ‒ when he imitated 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 the songs were called 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.
Until the past week Virginia government was known for being relatively scandal free, if you ignore Bob McDonnell, who was indicted and convicted of corruption in office, only to have the Supreme Court overturn the verdict. The state is now a political laughing stock, known for scandals and political incompetence.
Matthew Tallmer is a former congressional staffer who has been involved in Virginia politics.