Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam refused to resign Sunday despite widespread calls for him to step down over a racist yearbook picture that set off chaos in Richmond and a reckoning among white persons who’ve worn blackface.
The governor, in his first TV interview since the decades-old photo came to light, said he is the best person to shepherd the state through a serious discussion about race.
Mr. Northam is facing pressure to step aside after he admitted to darkening his skin to impersonate Michael Jackson in 1984 — and the discovery of a photo of someone in blackface and another person in a KKK costume on his medical-school yearbook page.
The governor initially apologized for appearing in the photo before backtracking, saying he doesn’t think he is either figure.
Many Democrats say the damage has been done, however, while Republicans say he’s doubly guilty after supporting an abortion bill they said the governor acknowledged would legalize infanticide.
“And that’s why I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
Mr. Northam was elected in November 2017 after a campaign that focused heavily on health care and rebuking President Trump. His victory was part of a state-level “blue wave” that set the table for a Democratic romp in the 2018 mid-terms.
Out of the gate, Mr. Northam was able to knock through a multiyear GOP blockade and expand Medicaid insurance to as many as 400,000 poorer residents.
But now, as Mr. Northam tries to ride out the controversy, Democrats across the board are standing by their call for him to resign.
U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, Virginia Democrat, said it’s fine if Mr. Northam wants to try to rehabilitate his reputation, but he should do it as a private citizen.
“He’s sacrificed so much of his ability to govern effectively,” Mr. Beyer told CBS.
A Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted through Friday finds Virginians are split, 47-47 percent, on whether Mr. Northam should go, with black residents offering greater support for the governor, 58-to-37 percent, despite the racist content of the yearbook photo.
The poll also found slightly more than one in 10 Virginians have either worn blackface or know someone who has.
The political storm around the commonwealth is raising serious, if confusing, questions about the succession of power in Richmond.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is black, would succeed Mr. Northam if he resigned, but two women have accused the lieutenant governor of forcing them to perform oral sex on him. The incidents are alleged to have occurred in 2000 at Duke University and during the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston.
Mr. Northam said he would like to see the outcome of any investigation, before calling on Mr. Fairfax to resign.
“If these accusations are determined to be true, I don’t think he’s going to have any other option,” Mr. Northam said.
Mr. Fairfax could face articles of impeachment as soon as this week, however. If he’s ousted, Mr. Northam would select a new lieutenant governor, despite his own fumbles.
“No matter how embattled he is, as long as Northam has the office, he can exercise any of the constitutional powers are bestowed on governors of Virginia,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
The appointed lieutenant governor would run in a special election next November to serve the remainder of Mr. Fairfax’s term.
If Mr. Northam himself is forced out before November, his appointed lieutenant could rise to the top spot without a mandate from voters.
“Virginia governing officials should be careful not to repeat the example of Gerald Ford, who was mocked as ‘his accidency’ when that appointed vice president and became president following Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974,” said Stephen Farnsworth, politics professor at the University of Mary Washington. “It doesn’t look like the commonwealth is on this path, though. As of today, it looks like Northam plans to serve out his term as governor, regardless of whether Lt. Gov. Fairfax remains in office or not.”
Indeed, the situation is quite fluid — and incredibly awkward.
The third in line of succession, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, has admitted that he, too, wore blackface in college to impersonate rapper Kurtis Blow.
Kirk Cox, the speaker of the House of Delegates, would become governor if all three were to depart, without replacements, under the cloud of scandal.
The Republican has assured Virginians that he’s never worn blackface.
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