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In The Aftermath Of Scandals, Va. Democrats Look To Women Of Color For Leadership


Two weeks ago today, that infamous photo from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook surfaced with one person in blackface and another in a KKK robe. It was the first in a series of scandals touching the state's top elected officials, all of whom are Democrats. Northam has rejected repeated calls to resign, so has Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax who's now accused of sexual assault by two women. Fairfax denies the allegations. But as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Richmond, these scandals have many Democrats looking to women of color for leadership.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: When you talk to Virginia Democrats these days, you hear a lot of words like disappointing and frustrating. That's because the men at the top of state government and at the center of these scandals have been well-liked by a lot of people who worked hard to help elect them. Alexsis Rodgers is the president of Virginia Young Democrats.

ALEXSIS RODGERS: It really is kind of a hard thing to reckon with - some of your heroes either causing embarrassment or shame or disappointment or anger.

MCCAMMON: Despite calls by Democratic leaders in Virginia to step down, both Governor Northam and Lieutenant Governor Fairfax are holding on. Under a cloud, Democrats are trying to wrap up the legislative session and prepare for state House and Senate elections this fall. At a coffee shop in Richmond, Rodgers says she's hearing from young Democratic activists.

RODGERS: How do I lead my chapter? How do I lead my friend group and the folks that I convinced to vote for the first time or to vote for a Democrat for the first time? What do we do now?

MCCAMMON: One answer on many Democrats' lips is that this is a time to re-examine who's leading the state and the party. State Delegate Lashrecse Aird is a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and the state Democratic Party's steering committee, both of which have called on Northam and Fairfax to step down.

LASHRECSE AIRD: So this is an opportunity as well for us to take a hard look at, why do we not have more people of color in elected statewide office? Why do we not have more black women in statewide office?

MCCAMMON: These questions are especially important for Virginia Democrats in a year when they hope to expand on historic gains made in the 2017 elections. Democrats came close to taking control of the state House of Delegates in large part due to a wave of Democratic women who ran and organized in the wake of the 2016 election. But the events of the past two weeks have sparked difficult conversations in Democratic circles about how to move forward, exposing divisions along lines of age, race and gender.

Delegate Marcia Price, the secretary for the Black Caucus, says black women are touched by all of those issues and should be at the center of these discussions.

MARCIA PRICE: It is hard to hear that we stand for women and we stand for racial equity when there are mixed messages coming from the leadership of the party.

MCCAMMON: Alexsis Rodgers of Virginia Young Democrats says the party must develop diverse leaders well before there's another crisis.

RODGERS: The historic Democratic Party has not been a place for people that look like me when it comes to leadership positions. Have they relied on black women to vote? Absolutely. But have we always been in leadership? Not so much.

MCCAMMON: Rodgers says that will require systems that are accessible to a wider range of people, starting with things like paid internships with campaigns and legislative offices. There are multiple efforts underway by progressive groups to encourage more women and people of color to enter politics, and the current scandals in Virginia appear to be accelerating those says Julie Copeland of Emerge Virginia, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.

JULIE COPELAND: I'm hearing on social media and in phone calls and emails that - from across the country from national donors who want to raise money or, you know, that they say, women are the answer. We wouldn't be in this place if women were in charge.

MCCAMMON: Copeland says she expects to see a lot of women, including women of color, on the ballot this fall and in 2021, when Virginians will elect a new governor. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.