RICHMOND, Va. – A political death watch took shape at Virginia’s Capitol as Gov. Ralph Northam consulted with top administration officials Monday about whether to resign amid a furor over a racist photo in his 1984 yearbook.
Practically all of the state’s Democratic establishment – and Republican leaders, too – turned against the 59-year-old Democrat after the picture surfaced late last week of someone in blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. The photo was on Northam’s medical school yearbook page.
The sense of crisis deepened Monday as the politician next in line to be governor, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, denied an uncorroborated allegation of sexual misconduct first reported by a conservative website. Fairfax told reporters that the 2004 encounter with a woman was consensual, and he called the accusation a political “smear.”
Protest chants, meanwhile, echoed around Capitol Square. Lobbyists complained they were unable to get legislators to focus on bills. Security guards joked about who was going to be the next governor. Cafeteria workers and members of the cleaning staff shook their heads in wonder. And banks of news cameras were set up outside the governor’s Executive Mansion.
Northam stayed out of sight as he met with his Cabinet and senior staff to hear their assessment of whether it was feasible for him to stay in office, according to a top administration official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The meetings included frank conversations about the difficulties of governing under such circumstances, the person said.
Calls from lawmakers for Northam’s resignation seemed to ease Monday. Delegate LaMont Bagby, head of the Legislative Black Caucus, said there was little left to say: “I’m going to let him breathe a little bit, give him space to make the right decision.”
The waiting game played out on what was already one of the legislature’s busiest days of the session, with the House and Senate each seeking to complete legislation to send to the other chamber.
Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said he told Northam that the state cannot afford a prolonged period of uncertainty over his future. Northam’s office is in the middle of negotiations with GOP lawmakers over a major tax overhaul and changes to the state budget. The Republicans control both houses of the legislature.
“One way or the other, it needs to be resolved,” Layne said.
The furor over the photo erupted on Friday, when Northam first admitted he was in the picture without saying which costume he was wearing, and apologized. But a day later, he denied he was in the photo, while also acknowledging he once put on blackface to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas decades ago.
The scandal threatens to cripple Northam’s ability to govern. In a sign Monday of the challenges he could face, Katherine Rowe, president of the College of William & Mary, canceled an appearance by Northam at an event this Friday because his presence would “fundamentally disrupt the sense of campus unity we aspire to.”
Northam, a pediatric neurologist who graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School and came to politics late in life, is one year into his four-year term. If he resigns, Fairfax will become the second African-American governor in Virginia history.
The state’s Republican House speaker said lawmakers are hesitant to seek Northam’s impeachment and are hoping he steps down instead.
“Obviously on impeachment, that’s a very high standard,” Speaker Kirk Cox said. “And so I think that’s why I think we have called for the resignation. We hope that’s what the governor does. I think that would obviously be less pain for everyone.”
Referring to the allegation against him, Fairfax said he was not surprised it came at a critical time: “It’s at that point that they come out with the attacks and the smears. It is unfortunate. It really is, but it’s sadly a part of our politics now.”
The Associated Press is not reporting the details of the accusation because AP has not been able to corroborate it. The Washington Post said Monday that it was approached by the woman in 2017 and carefully investigated but never published a story for lack of any independent evidence. The Post said the woman had not told anyone about it, the account could not be corroborated, Fairfax denied it, and the Post was unable to find other similar allegations against him among people who knew him in college, law school or in politics.
The woman did not immediately respond Monday to a voicemail, text message or email from an AP reporter.
The allegations were first reported by Big League Politics, the news outlet that first published the yearbook image.
Last week, Northam came under fire from Republicans who have accused him of backing infanticide after he said he supported a bill loosening restrictions on late-term abortions.
Late last month, Florida’s secretary of state resigned after photos surfaced of him in blackface as a Hurricane Katrina victim at a 2005 Halloween party.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.