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Commentary Politics

More Than Anything, Virginia Needs Moral Leaders (Who Live Here, Thanks)

Erin Matson

The pain progressives feel in Virginia is real. We reject racism and blackface from our political leaders. We stand with and believe sexual assault survivors, and we demand that our political leaders treat women with respect.

Virginia is in the middle of three things at once: an anti-abortion hit job, an attempted political coup, and a deep crisis in leadership. In the face of intense national focus, not all of it helpful, progressive leaders on the ground are working to address all three issues at once.

Last week, Democratic Del. Kathy Tran of Springfield sponsored a bill addressing Virginia’s third-trimester abortion ban, which currently allows for abortion only when a pregnant person’s life or health is in danger. Her bill did not change that. Instead, it took the common-sense step for those exigent circumstances of allowing one physician to sign off on the need for that abortion instead of the currently required three.

While Tran was speaking on the floor, Republican Del. Todd Gilbert invoked an incredible and insulting scenario of expectant parents who travel to the hospital and endure at least some labor—to the point of dilation—before deciding to end a pregnancy. (As a mother myself, Gilbert’s speculations make clear to me that he has never given birth.) Tran replied in a way that she later characterized as having “misspoke.” Still, state Republicans continued to suggest that Tran and Democrats were working to legalize infanticide in Virginia. Tran, a mother of four young children, chose to cancel a town hall after receiving “pro-life” death threats.

During a radio interview last week, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist by trade, also made comments that abortion opponents almost immediately interpreted as his support for delivering and killing children. A spokesperson later said the Democrat’s statements were “focused on the tragic and extremely rare case in which a woman with a nonviable pregnancy or severe fetal abnormalities went into labor.” The firestorm continued, and several Virginia progressives, myself included, have reported receiving threats from abortion opponents.

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Just days after refusing to advance the Equal Rights Amendment, national abortion opponents are pushing a narrative in Virginia to bully those who sponsor proactive reproductive rights legislation because they are bruised and scared after New York passed a Reproductive Health Act that decriminalized abortion. It was no coincidence that Trump attacked both the Virginia bill and the New York law in his State of the Union address days later.

It is also no coincidence that Tran has been made the face of this attack, as abortion opponents have long singled out Asian American women for shame. The anti-abortion movement has worked to create race- and sex-selective abortion bans based on baseless stereotypes of Asian American women and families. It has overseen literal prosecution and punishment for pregnancy outcomes, as in the cases of Purvi Patel and Bei Bei Shuai in Indiana.

The anti-choice hit job is taking place because abortion opponents are pushing an agenda that they know is deeply unpopular. A 2019 poll released by Perry Undem shows “voters’ support for abortion rights is as high as we’ve seen in years,” with nearly three of four voters saying they do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.

It is also taking place because abortion opponents are using long-held opposition research released in rapid succession in order to stage a political coup—which we need to acknowledge, even as we hold political figures strictly accountable for racism and sexual assault allegations.

It is completely unacceptable that a picture on the medical school yearbook page of the governor features two men, one in a Ku Klux Klan robe and another in blackface. It is also completely unacceptable that he apologized for the image, then the next day staged a press conference in which he said he wasn’t in the photograph but had dressed in blackface another time. Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, Virginia House Democrats, and state-based progressive organizations from Progress Virginia to NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia have joined the Richmond Times-Dispatch and national Democratic leaders in calling on the governor to resign. As a member of the governor’s inauguration committee, I have also joined these calls. There is no other apparent path forward in a commonwealth that was once the capitol of the Confederacy and only recently was the site of a violent neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville that claimed the life of anti-racism activist Heather Heyer.

It needs to be noted that the conservative website that first published the yearbook page received a tip from an individual who had previously known about the photo, but decided to step forward only following the governor’s statement on abortion last week. There should be no applause for a “pro-life” tipster who felt that evocation of the Ku Klux Klan on any governor’s yearbook page was only a relevant issue during the middle of an anti-abortion hit job. Racism in our public leaders should be called out swiftly, and it’s disgusting to think of someone filing the yearbook page away for an opportune moment.

There is also no applause to be had for Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, either, who came forward Wednesday with an admission that he too had dressed in blackface. Now, too, his lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, also faces the potential end of his career, in this case following the release of a statement by Vanessa Tyson saying that Fairfax sexually assaulted her at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

The pain progressives feel in Virginia is real. We reject racism and blackface from our political leaders. We stand with and believe sexual assault survivors, and we demand that our political leaders treat women with respect. We are principled. We are not idiots. We know how to do difficult work, which we are doing now.

Now that all three men are teetering on the brink of collapse at once, we must also move forward extremely strategically. Posturing and feel-good virtue signaling from national leaders with agendas and little in the way of local know-how and relationships is not helpful.

We are in the middle of a leadership crisis and an attempted political coup at the same time. If Northam, Fairfax, and Herring are all forced from office at once, the next person in line to become governor is Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox of Petersburg—the very same person who spearheaded the attack on Tran. If governor, Cox and his allies would then be able to determine when and how Virginia proceeds to fill the offices of lieutenant governor and attorney general, with far-reaching ramifications over redistricting for the 2020 Census. That would shape the electoral map for Virginia and the nation for years to come, which could be determinative for voting rights, reproductive rights, environmental protection, the ability to combat gun violence, and so many causes we progressives hold dear.

In my community, it hurts like hell to learn that our trusted leaders are not who we thought they were. We can, must, and will continue to demand accountability for racism and to stand with survivors of sexual assault. We will continue to stand up for abortion rights, for people who have abortions, and Kathy Tran.

The most helpful thing for those who wish to support us is to carefully amplify local organizations and groups on the ground and ask us what support we need. It’s not acceptable to issue blanket statements about what Virginians should do, or to insert long-standing internal Democratic Party debates into this prism. Those who do that are only making it harder for Virginia leaders to resolve the urgent, moral crisis in leadership we find ourselves in, because doing so challenges our unity and right to self-determination.

More than anything, Virginia needs and deserves moral leaders at the top who reflect the will of Virginia voters and stand with women and people of color. For now, what we have is a strong pipeline of rising stars—thankfully, many of whom are women of color —and a ticking trifecta of a time bomb at the top. Unity will pull us through.

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