PETERSBURG, Va. — Brent Phillips, a white bartender in this historically black city, spent part of a recent happy hour working a mental abacus to decide who would — or should — be running the commonwealth where he has lived his whole life.
“Let’s see, you’ve got the governor with the blackface, he should probably just resign now,” Phillips said, counting on his fingers at the patio bar of DJ’s Rajun Cajun, a light-strung Mardi Gras outpost in this dilapidated, antebellum outpost on the Appomattox River.
“But then you have the lieutenant governor with the sexual (assault accusation) and then the attorney general with his blackface story.” Phillips said, his voice trailing off.
“In Virginia, you shouldn’t have to choose the lesser of three evils.”
It was the kind of head-scratching, finger-ticking recalculation that Virginians across the commonwealth are doing as serial scandals engulf the highest reaches of their government. In this impoverished city of 32,000, people are staring at the maelstrom surrounding all three statewide-elected officials, wondering who will emerge intact and what it all means that Virginia’s vaunted reputation for political dignity is being sucked into the shredders of late-night comedy.
“It’s so much chaos, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham, who worried that paralysis in the capital would stall Petersburg’s slow recovery from near bankruptcy in 2016. “It’s little cities like ours that suffer.”
But Parham, like other black residents in this crossroad of both African-American and Civil War history, said he was not surprised to see Jim Crow iconography popping from the scrapbook pasts of white politicians.
“If there is good to come out of this tragedy, maybe it’s that when the chaos has settled, we’ll finally be able to have a conversation about Virginia’s racial divide,” Parham said.