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We Need a New Standard for When Politicians Should Step Down

In the 400th year since chattel slavery began in the colony of Virginia in 1619, the Commonwealth has been under severe duress, with its heads of state embroiled in controversies descended from the colony’s founding sin.

For weeks, Democrats and Republicans statewide — and nationwide — have called for the resignations of Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, for the racist act of wearing blackface as young adults (a claim Northam denied after initially admitting to being in a photo that surfaced weeks ago).

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax also drew demands for resignation, after sexual assault and rape allegations were brought against him by two different women. (Fairfax denies the allegations.)

Virginia constituents (including myself) have been vocal in the debate over whether the men should step down. Complicating matters, next-in-line GOP House Leader Kirk Vox would take office if all three stepped down, restoring Republican control of the state after the party lost badly in the last elections.

The firestorm in Richmond has since calmed. Out of fear of being branded a “racist for life,”Northam announced a “Racial Reconciliation Tour” as a way to save face and remain governor.

In a recent poll, 58 percent of Black voters believed Northam shouldn’t step down, as they considered a worse fate for marginalized communities if he resigned. Meanwhile, a Virginia delegate that threatened articles of impeachment against Fairfax has walked back his plans (even as Fairfax’s accusers have criticized lawmakers for failing to act on their behalf).

Where this leaves the Commonwealth is up in the air; it seems no one is stepping down. But it leads one to wonder why delegates threatened to impeach Fairfax and not Northam.

Are acts of sexual violence worse than posing in photos that mock the racial terror suffered by Black Virginians? Will a “Toxic-Masculinity Reconciliation Tour” also be announced?

The answer, of course, is that one act is no more atrocious than the other. This isn’t a game of Oppression Olympics, where those in power decide which marginalized group deserves to be avenged.

We must hold all elected officials to a standard of accountability that affirms all people. And those directly affected by the scandals that rocked Virginia — particularly Black people and women — should be the ones to determine the fate of their elected leaders.

In an activist listening session alongside other women activists of color, I gave my opinion that it was time for a new precedent in government — a standard that would change the scope of politics in Virginia and throughout the country. A precedent that holds politicians to a standard set by current social change movements.

It goes like this: Morally speaking, if you hurt people, and you can’t humble yourself to consider the feelings of those you’ve harmed, you have to step down. Practically speaking, you can’t remain in office after crossing a line that harms the majority of your base.

This was the kind of precedent that saw prominent former Senator Al Franken (D-MN) resign for sexual misconduct in the era of “Me Too.” But it’s not just about resignations — this standard also enabled the most diverse House of Representatives ever to be sworn into office this year, a true reflection of the melting pot that is the United States of America.

Of the top three officials, Mark Herring was the only one to humbly admit guilt and offer a confession. “Forgiveness in instances like these is a complicated process,” he said, “one that necessarily cannot and should not be decided by anyone but those directly affected by the transgressor.”

I believe Herring gets it. But Northam and Fairfax?

As a black woman and Virginia resident, I believe they should resign. Forgiveness may be possible, but remaining in office only compounds wounds rooted in this country’s unforgivable past.

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