This week marked “crossover,” the midpoint of the legislative session, when the Senate and the House of Delegates must complete work on legislation introduced by their respective members before sending it to the other chamber for consideration. Twelve of my bills are heading to the House this year. The days approaching crossover reached a frenetic pace as we voted on hundreds of bills and dozens of amendments. These final, all-engrossing days were accompanied by unexpected tension as our state government was suddenly embroiled in controversy and entered into the national spotlight.
The controversy began when an excerpt of a House Courts of Justice hearing regarding a bill to relax restrictions on abortion, introduced by Delegate Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax), went viral on conservative websites. A short clip of a lengthier exchange between the sponsor and Delegate Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) regarding third trimester abortions was disseminated first in fundraising emails by the Republican Party of Virginia, and later drew national media attention. The next day, on the “Ask the Governor” program on WTOP radio, Governor Ralph Northam answered a question about the exchange. A misunderstanding about his clinical explanation of the delivery of a non-viable fetus led to some, including President Trump, to claim that the Governor, a pediatric neurologist, was advocating for “infanticide.” He was not.
The situation was one in which strongly held beliefs combined with the frantic speed of the news cycle spiraled out of control, creating confusion about the actual text of the bill. The bill would have made adjustments to current law to allow physicians to provide abortion services during the second trimester in an outpatient facility, ended the mandate of an ultrasound 24 hours before an abortion, and required that one licensed physicians must certify that a third trimester abortion is necessary for the health or welfare of the mother--as opposed to the current procedures which require three physicians to sign off on such procedures. Third trimester abortions are currently legal in Virginia and are exceedingly rare. According to the Virginia Department of Health data, only two have been performed on record in Virginia since 2000.
This bill would have permitted a woman and her doctor to make clinically-informed, often time-sensitive, choices regarding her own health. No woman makes such a decision lightly, and I don’t consider it my place to add non-medically necessary burdens to this process.
As an already contentious and busy week drew to a close, I was preparing for debate on the Senate Floor regarding the final pieces of my legislative agenda when I was alerted of a shocking photograph on Governor Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page.
I was appalled and disgusted when I saw the racist photograph of two individuals, one in blackface, the second in a Ku Klux Klan uniform, next to photos of the Governor. Later that evening, the Governor admitted publicly that he was in the photograph, and apologized. The Governor met with the Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) that evening and again confirmed he was in the photograph. I joined the VLBC in calling for his resignation. The Senate and House Democratic Caucuses concurred with this decision.
The history of blackface, a tool employed by racists to deride and mock African Americans, coupled with the terror of lynchings, assaults, and harassment led by the KKK, are too inherent to the lived experience of Black Virginians to excuse this action. The Governor’s press conference on Saturday, in which he claimed he was not in the photograph, but had before dressed in blackface in a dance contest, reinforced my belief that he must resign. The normalizing of racist iconography cannot be dismissed as a youthful mistake.
I spent the weekend speaking to a number of community leaders, including members of the NAACP and clergy, and discussed the pain and sense of betrayal that this image brought so many. While I have known and served with the Governor for years, as a senator, lieutenant governor, and governor, and appreciate his career in public service, it is clear that his actions, both in the past and in dealing with the recent fall out of this revelation, have deeply shaken Virginians’ trust in him. Because of this, he cannot continue to lead our Commonwealth.
This week has been a painful reminder of the racist past, and the too-often racist and discriminatory present of Virginia, that continues to define the experience of many in minority communities today.
In order to fully condemn hate and violence, Virginia needs a Governor with the moral authority lead us forward. So long as Governor Northam remains in office, Virginia will lack this.
We have to end the systemic racism which has for too long persecuted minority communities. We need criminal justice reform. We need to end discriminatory practices in voting and housing, and to end the scourge of gun violence. We need a living wage and affordable housing to provide a hand up from poverty for those suffering the consequences of institutionalized racism and Jim Crow laws. To solve these problems, we must have a unified Virginia with leadership that fully understands what it means to experience discrimination.
It is time to begin the healing process. We must take action and move forward together.