‘It suddenly became very real’: How Virginia’s scandals could lead Democrats to back a black woman for governor

‘It suddenly became very real’: How Virginia’s scandals could lead Democrats to back a black woman for governor

Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy (Emerge VA alumna)

St. Senator Jennifer McClellan

The race- and sex-related scandals crippling the three Democratic men who lead Virginia’s government have boosted efforts within the party to elevate a new generation of candidates for statewide office — particularly women of color.   At least two female African American lawmakers — state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) and Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) — are considering statewide campaigns for 2021 even as they gear up for their reelection efforts this fall.   Younger and more liberal Democrats tout both women as antidotes to the damaged men who, until last month, had been front-runners to be the party’s next nominee for governor: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who has denied two allegations of sexual assault, and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, who admitted wearing blackface as a college student in 1980.

The emergence of McClellan and Carroll Foy comes as more women seek office throughout Virginia but could test the limits of the state’s recent evolution from red to reliably blue in statewide and presidential elections.

Although voters have sent record numbers of women and minorities to the state legislature, including the first openly transgender lawmaker, a majority said in recent polls that having worn blackface does not disqualify a politician from holding public office.

“Virginia is not Maryland,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. Cities and suburbs are increasingly liberal, he said, but statewide candidates have to appeal to swaths of rural Virginia that are deeply conservative.

And even as women of color test political boundaries nationwide, with Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) a leading presidential contender and Chicago voters choosing between two black women for mayor next month, the hurdles for winning office remain high everywhere.

Nationally, just three black women hold statewide elective office, and no state has ever elected a black woman as governor, although Stacey Abrams came within two percentage points last year in Georgia. Only one woman has ever been elected statewide in Virginia: Mary Sue Terry as attorney general in 1985, and she is white.

Some Virginia Democrats think the travails of the party’s top three men have shattered that status quo. The scandal began Feb. 1 when a racist photo from Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page came to light, followed quickly by revelations about Fairfax and Herring.

Embarrassment has fueled a sentiment among Democrats that it’s time to move beyond the cautious “Virginia way” brand of politics and that black women are well suited to lead in solving tough issues involving race and gender.

“Coming through the chaos, we’re seeing women of color stepping into the void created by it and getting the opportunity they may not have had before,” said Julie Copeland, executive director of Emerge Virginia, which trains female candidates. “I get asked all the time, can we pull off an all-women-of-color ticket? And my answer is yes, let’s do it!”

Black women have long been the Democratic Party’s most stalwart supporters in Virginia. Although fewer than half of white women voted for Democrats in recent statewide elections, 91 percent of black women supported both Northam for governor and Hillary Clinton for president — a higher percentage than any other group of voters, according to exit polls.

The next gubernatorial race is two years away, and although candidates would need to start preparing now, the first hurdle will be this November’s ballot for all 140 seats in the General Assembly. It’s an off-off-year election with no federal candidates to bring out more voters, so the electorate is traditionally older, whiter and more conservative than otherwise.

Unless, that is, Virginians continue an unusual trend in evidence last year, when turnout by women and young people for the 2018 midterm election was similar to that of a presidential year, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

The number of voters younger than 30 was up by two-thirds over the previous midterm election, in 2014, and 53,000 more women than expected cast ballots, VPAP found.

A push to recalibrate

Against that backdrop, some influential donors are pushing Democrats to recalibrate after their disastrous February.

“All change is opportunity, including the change you don’t want,” said Michael Bills, a Charlottesville hedge fund manager who was the top individual donor to Northam in 2017. “The chance to have younger voices, women of color — there are some really exciting, progressive . . . righteous people who should run, and eventually would’ve run, and now they can be running for the top of the ticket.”

The field for Democrats in 2021 was already taking shape barely a year into Northam’s administration. (Virginia is the only state whose constitution bars the chief executive from serving a second consecutive term).

Herring announced in December that he would seek the nomination. Fairfax, who is only the second African American elected statewide in Virginia history, has been widely known to want the top job.

Neither man has ruled out running even as they weather scandals. Most Democrats called on Fairfax to resign after two women came forward in February to allege that he sexually assaulted them in separate incidents, one in 2000 and the other in 2004. Fairfax has denied the accusations. House Republicans promised to hold a hearing and let the women testify, but nothing has been scheduled, and the matters remain unresolved.

Democrats have largely withheld judgment about Herring, who admitted last month that he darkened his face to imitate a rapper at a college party when he was 19. The Legislative Black Caucus credited Herring for his admission and apology. He has continued to pursue liberal causes in his role as attorney general — regularly challenging the Trump administration on issues such as the travel ban and border wall — and Herring could salvage his standing to mount another statewide campaign, some Democrats say.

Another Democrat seen as aiming for the executive mansion is Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who is African American and a protege of former governor Terry McAuliffe (D). Stoney recently addressed the quarterly meeting of the Democratic Party of Virginia, a move that many interpreted as a warm-up for announcing a statewide bid.

But in February, for some Democrats, the equation changed. The rapid cascade of scandals in a single week made it appear as though the governor would have to appoint a lieutenant governor — either Northam would resign and Fairfax would ascend, or Fairfax would resign and Northam would select a new lieutenant governor. And the name that emerged as a likely appointee was McClellan’s.

McClellan, 46, has been a rising star since entering the legislature as a delegate in 2006 and then winning a Senate seat in a special election in 2017. A Verizon corporate lawyer, she has never discouraged speculation about her future but had been saying the time wasn’t right.

Suddenly, though, the moment seemed near.

“When we were almost in position of having to put someone in as lieutenant governor and it could have been a black woman, it suddenly became very real,” said Del. Lashrecse D. Aird (D-Petersburg), who is in the Black Caucus and serves on the state Democratic Party steering committee.

As she attends party committee meetings around Southside Virginia, Aird said, the constant refrain is: Why not now? Why isn’t there already a pipeline of minority and female candidates ready to move up?

“Black women have always been part of solving all kinds of problems [for Democrats], but there’s always been barriers to prevent us from going beyond a certain point,” she said. Prominent figures such as Harris and Abrams, as well as the success of women in Virginia’s 2017 House elections, are rewriting expectations.

“You’d have to be under a rock to not see the [interest] at the national level for having black women in higher office. I think that adds to the energy we have here on our ground,” Aird said. “Whether it’s Jennifer McClellan or Jennifer Carroll Foy or someone else, I think you’re going to see that conversation just continue to evolve.”

Decisions to make

Carroll Foy, 37, has been one of the most high-profile members of the House of Delegates Class of 2017 — 15 Democrats who swept out Republican incumbents and nearly tipped the chamber’s balance of power.

A defense lawyer who ran for office while pregnant with twins, Carroll Foy was among the first group of women to graduate from the Virginia Military Institute. She has made a mark in the legislature by leading a visible but unsuccessful effort to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed this year. During last month’s scandals, she wrote an essay for Glamour magazine that said, “If this ends with a black woman leading Virginia, that would be incredible.”

Carroll Foy was among half a dozen national finalists for this year’s Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award from Emily’s List — something Abrams won in 2014. She’ll have competition for her seat this fall from Republican Heather Mitchell, but several Democrats said Carroll Foy has indicated that she’s interested in running for higher office in 2021.

Like McClellan, Carroll Foy avoids speaking directly about her ambitions.

“I am happy and excited and honored to represent the people in the 2nd District and put forth some really good legislation, but I am willing to do whatever my party needs me to do,” she said. “I’m really excited that people have been acknowledging all the hard work my team has done.”

Running statewide while juggling family and a law career would be demanding, she acknowledged, but said: “My VMI training has prepared me for it all.”

Regardless of whether she seeks one of the state’s three top offices, Carroll Foy said the recent “unfortunate incidents” in Richmond emphasize the need for new leadership.

“I think that a wave of women and minorities and people who have not traditionally run for office will come out of this and say, hey, I will step forward to lead Virginia,” she said.

Carroll Foy represents that new guard, but McClellan has come up through the Democratic establishment. She is vice chair of the state party and a member of the Democratic National Committee. Her office wall features photos of her with President Barack Obama and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), among others.

Asked in a recent interview whether she is exploring a run for governor, McClellan paused for nearly 30 seconds before answering: “I’m thinking very seriously about where is the best place for me — how and where is the best place for me to serve.”

She said she’s aware that some Democrats are floating her name. “I’m listening to what everyone who is talking to me has to say,” she said.

Although the black caucus has called on Northam to resign, McClellan has spoken with the governor behind the scenes as one of several black legislators Northam has sought out for guidance on how to use his office to fight racial inequality.

Copeland, of Emerge Virginia, said she initially worried that the scandals would tarnish the Democratic brand and scare people away from public office. But she said she has seen a spike in women expressing interest in running at all levels.

Since 2006, Copeland said, her organization has trained more than 200 women to run for everything from school board to county supervisor to state delegate. With one more “boot camp” slated for later this month, this year’s total will be the highest ever, she said — 80 or more.

A record number of women ran in 2017 elections for the House of Delegates, about 30 percent of the total field. This year, with all House and Senate seats on the ballot, the percentage is running slightly higher.

Copeland credited McClellan and Carroll Foy, in particular, with helping to recruit and support female candidates. She said she’d like to see both of them and others run statewide.

“There are a number of highly skilled women who can step up and get this job done, and it’s okay if it’s more than one person. There is plenty of room here,” she said. “The more people at the table, the stronger we are. More people will be motivated to give money and show up at the polls. And that’s not a small thing for democracy.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.