Blackface Photo: Northam as Michael Jackson?

Governor Ralph Northam astonished the world in a nationally televised press conference  several months ago when he denied being one of the people in the notorious 1984 medical school yearbook photo but then volunteered that he had darkened his face that same year as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance contest.

The governor was widely mocked at the time for this admission and his seeming willingness to demonstrate the superstar’s signature moonwalk move in front of the cameras. What no one has considered until now (I think this is an original observation, although I can’t swear that someone else in the recesses of the Internet hasn’t made the same point) is this: Perhaps the figure in blackface is Northam dressed up as Michael Jackson! Consider some points of similarity with the photo of Jackson below, taken around 1991:

Michael Jackson is wearing a broad-rimmed hat. The figure in the photo is wearing a broad-rimmed hat.

Michael Jackson is wearing sunglasses. The figure in the photo is wearing sunglasses.

Wait… wait… What about those crazy plaid pants? Continue reading

Blackface Scandal: The Case for and Against Northam


There is plenty of evidence in the McGuire Woods report on the Northam/Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) blackface scandal to confirm whatever prejudices and preconceptions you had beforehand. If you believe that Governor Ralph Northam was not one of the figures in the infamous EVMS school yearbook photo, there are plausible though inconclusive arguments to support your view. If you believe he was, there are equally plausible-but-inconclusive arguments to back you up.

This morning I read the portions of the report (which you can access here), that pertain to Northam. (I skipped the lengthy sections probing EVMS’s commitment to “diversity and inclusion” since the 1980s.) My two main conclusions:

  1. The investigation, though extensive, was far from exhaustive. The investigators neglected to pursue lines of inquiry that would have added important context.
  2. Regardless of whether Northam was one of the two figures in the notorious photo, the odds are strong that he submitted the photo to the yearbook.

Herewith, I present what I believe are the most salient facts and arguments on both sides. Continue reading

Housing’s Supply-Side Revolution

IndieDwell’s 960-square-foot house, made from three shipping containers, on display at the Richmond Convention Center. (Does not include peaked roof, which would not fit in the convention center.)

IndieDwell converts shipping containers into affordable housing. The Idaho-based business has taken an idea championed locally by entrepreneurs Sheila and Sidney Gunst (see “Thinking Outside the Container“) and turned it into a growing business enterprise.

The company now sells 640-square-foot dwellings, including the cost of delivery and installation, for $78,000. Add $11,500 to build a foundation (IndieDwell’s estimate), plus utility hookups if applicable, plus, say, $10,000 for a tiny lot, and it should be possible to create a new unit of affordable housing in Virginia for less than $100,000 — roughly half the price of what it costs public housing authorities in Virginia today.

IndieDwell was just one of the businesses presenting fresh perspectives on affordable housing at a Virginia Housing and Development Authority (VDHA) event yesterday organized to exploring new approaches to affordable housing. Other speakers addressed the phenomenal productivity gains in the manufactured housing industry and explored new concepts in modular housing. It was evident that a supply-side revolution in the housing industry is gathering momentum that holds out the potential to slash the construction cost of workforce and lower-income housing. Continue reading

Sweet Briar Finds Niche in Artisinal Agriculture

A Sweet Briar student holds a honeycomb from one of the school’s beehives.

Women account for a rapidly increasing percentage of the nation’s farmers, and in that trend Sweet Briar College sees a business opportunity. The women’s college, which nearly shut down due to financial difficulties a couple of years ago, has no intention of competing with Virginia Tech’s traditional agricultural sciences program. Instead, it is building a program around artisinal farming.

Located on 3,200 acres in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Sweet Briar campus once was a working plantation with tobacco and agricultural crops. Now it hosts vineyards and beehives, and it is tearing out the old tennis courts to install a nine-bay, 27,000-square-foot commercial greenhouse. In the future, the school plans to raise livestock and plant orchards.

According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, 56% of all U.S. farming operations have at least one female decision-maker, and the percentage of female farmers has been rising rapidly, reaching 1.23 million, reports the News & Advance. Says President Meredeith Woo: “We see a very interesting megatrend in which we want to be at the forefront and make sure that we’re educating women [and] exciting women about very interesting possibilities in this new century which they will own.” Continue reading

Meet GOP Carbon Tax Advocate Bob Inglis

The Hon. Robert Inglis

There is a hotbed of carbon tax advocacy at George Mason University, led by a former GOP congressman sent packing by South Carolina voters because he’s ready to tax them into loving solar and wind.

Robert Inglis was part of the carbon regulation panel discussion Friday at the National Regulatory Conference in Williamsburg, talking about the version of a national carbon tax he’s advocating through the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, identified as an affiliate of GMU where he teaches.  The main website is here.

That proposal is quite different than the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative currently on the front burner in Virginia.  This idea would be nationwide, across more sectors of the economy than just power generation, and “border adjustable.”  That means it would also be imposed on imports unless the exporting country had a similar system.  Continue reading

Update: Aggregation Petition Moves to Full SCC

If our electric bill rises a nickel, and our grocery bill drops a nickel, do we care?

The debate over retail aggregation and choice for electricity underway at the State Corporation Commission is moving to another decision point, with a hearing examiner’s ruling May 21 on one of the many petitions.

Eventually the full SCC must decide.  There is no real indication of the ultimate outcome in this ruling, which reads more like a case summary (here).  Senior Examiner Michael D. Thomas spends most of the 37 pages describing earlier testimony and arguments.  The real hints may be in two confidential supplements he provided but which we cannot read.  They may answer one key question:  Just how much money can these companies save? Continue reading

More Course-Credit Abuses Discovered in Richmond Schools

Richmond school superintendent Jason Kamras at news conference. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The graduation scandal in the Richmond Public School system just went from bad to worse. Following up on a state audit in November that found extensive irregularities in the awarding of class credits, a team of city and state school administrators has reviewed every current high school transcript. What they found, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Rubber-stamping student work. Choosing to use an alternative test instead of giving students the common state test. Putting students on individualized education programs to circumvent state graduation requirements.

Only three in four city seniors in Richmond high schools graduated on time last year. The graduation rate was 16 percentage points below the state average. But, as low as it was, the rate was artificially boosted by administrative artifice. Said Tracy Epp, the district’s chief academic officer: “The further we dig in, the more issues we discover.” Continue reading

Correction: DLS Was There At Energy Conference

There was a Division of Legislative Services staff person present at the recent National Regulatory Conference in Williamsburg. My piece yesterday was in error.  Attorney Christine Noonan’s name was on the list and I missed it.  She’s been at DLS for a while, but only this session started as staff support for the committees doing energy legislation.  Continue reading

Helping the Poor by… Replacing Lower-Income Housing with Mixed-Income Housing?

The Highland Grove mixed-income community. Photo credit: Richmond Free-Press

The premise behind public housing is that “market failure” fails to supply enough decent and affordable housing for poor people. Government must intervene in the housing marketplace not only with subsidies but as a real estate developer to fill the gap. What government succeeded in creating all too often — from Chicago’s infamous Pruitt Igoe towers to Richmond’s public housing courts — is concentrated poverty, crime and social dysfunction. Learning from past disasters, the public housing sector now sees the solution as diluting poverty by bundling low-income housing with middle-class housing under the rubric of “mixed-income” development.

Ironically, the consequence of implementing this philosophy in Richmond is less low-income housing and more middle-income housing.

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority has decided not to replace 22 of the 60 public housing units in Dove Court that were bulldozed in 2008 in order to make way for a a mixed-income community called Highland Grove. Reports the Richmond Free-Press: Continue reading

Dominion Responds to Calls for Deregulation

William Murray

Dominion Energy has responded to calls for electric deregulation in the form of an op-ed by William Murray, senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications. His argument: We tried deregulation once, it didn’t work, and the arrangement we have now works just fine.

Electric deregulation was “in fashion” in the 1990s,” he wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “It promised lower prices and more choices for customers. What really happened was something quite different. In fact, electric rates in deregulated states are more than one-third higher today than rates in states that have retained regulation.”

Moreover, Murray argued, 1990s-era deregulation did nothing to make the electric grid stronger, more secure, and more resilient — “pressing needs today in the face of threats such as cyberattacks from hostile nation-states.” To the contrary, deregulation invited predatory players like Enron into the system, leading to price spikes in New England, Maryland, Delaware and California. The outcome in California was particularly disastrous, bringing rollouts and widespread economic chaos.

Maybe his argument stands up, maybe it doesn’t. This may sound like a cop-out, but we need more data.

Continue reading

Layne Cautions Again about Excess Debt and Risk

The good news in Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne’s presentation to the House Appropriations Committee this morning is that General Fund revenues, after a below-forecast start to the fiscal year, surged 27.4% in April. On a year-to-date basis, total revenues are 6.2% ahead of last year, beating the 5.9% forecast for Fiscal 2019.

The bad news is that U.S. economic prosperity is built on a mountain of consumer, corporate, and government debt. The national debt stands at $22 trillion, and the Congressional Budget Office says that debt as a percentage of GDP could increase from 78% this year to 96% by 2028. Plus, student debt exceeds $1.5 trillion, and credit card debt has surpassed $1 trillion, both record highs. And corporations are carrying a $9 trillion debt load, almost double the level of the Great Recession. At 46% of GDP, corporate debt is the highest on record.

Layne, a traditional fiscal conservative, is not predicting an imminent recession. Rather, he is saying that the U.S. economy and, by extension, the Virginia economy and state budget, are highly vulnerable to a downturn, should one occur. Continue reading

Northam Finds Salvation in Victimhood-and-Grievance Agenda

Funny how things worked out. Democratic Party cries for Ralph Northam’s resignation during the blackface scandal have diminished to a barely audible murmur. Now the establishment media is taking notice of the fact, stating out loud what everyone knows: The scandal has passed. Northam is off the hook. Virginia’s governor has purchased absolution by advancing the racial agenda of the party’s progressive wing.

As the Wall Street Journal notes today in its national news coverage, Northam recently vetoed two mandatory-minimum sentencing bills he claimed would disproportionately affect African-Americans, created a director-of-diversity position, and launched a review of how public schools address black history. And that’s just the headline news. Of greater import, his appointees are injecting progressive priorities into the public school system.

I don’t doubt that the outrage of Democrats, liberals and progressives over Northam’s blackface offense was genuine at the time. But at the end of the day, power trumps outrage. By threatening Northam with the end of his political life, the Left pushed the politically moderate governor into advancing a progressive victimhood-and-grievance agenda. Continue reading

VA Energy Regulatory Conference All About Carbon

The Hon. Bernard McNamee, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

WILLIAMSBURG — “The environmentalists don’t want to admit when they’ve won, but they’ve already won.”

That line was delivered by Joseph A. Rosenthal, principal attorney at Connecticut’s Office of Consumer Counsel, during a discussion Thursday on the status electricity grid modernization efforts in his state and several others.  It was a part of a day-and-a-half National Regulatory Conference and William and Mary’s law school which had several nominal topics but was really about carbon regulation.  Continue reading

Now Everybody Has a Club on Abortion. Wonderful.

Watching the abortion issue being shoved into the coming Virginia elections by ideologues on both sides, it is fair to ask the question:  Can the center hold?  Are the many people who are fairly comfortable with the state of the law these last few decades going to be sorry with an outcome in either direction?

The point has been well-made that the debate over the less-restrictive third-trimester abortion rules, proposed in a failed bill during the 2019 General Assembly session, involved very few cases.  As reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch long ago, under the current law third-trimester abortions are not happening here.  The bill in question might have changed that, but not much.  Continue reading

What can Virginia learn from Nashville (Part 2)?

Update. In the first installment of this two installment post I described the metropolitan juggernaut that is modern day Nashville. I also provided some historical perspective on how Nashville became the sixth fastest growing US city (measured along several axes) between 2011 and 2016. As a side note, the 35 fastest growing cities documented in the prior link included no cities in Virginia. I have family in Nashville. For three of the last four years I have visited my family, run in a wildly popular race and witnessed the remarkable growth of Music City. My 2019 trip is complete and this article is the promised update.

First, a step back. Admiring the rapid growth of Nashville requires a fundamental belief. One has to believe that rapid growth in urban areas is a good thing. This is not a universally held belief, in Virginia or in Tennessee. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was quoted as saying, “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” While I understand the bucolic allure of country living I believe that the economic future of the United States and Virginia will largely be in the cities. I think Virginia should be striving to create an environment conducive to fast growing, safe, livable cities. To that end much can be learned from Nashville as well as Charlotte, Austin, Raleigh, etc. Continue reading