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Ralph Northam won’t resign as Virginia governor over blackface scandal

The cascading blackface and sexual assault scandals roiling Virginia politics, explained

Left to right: Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Governor Ralph Northam, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
Left to right: Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Governor Ralph Northam, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. All three are now ensnared in scandal.
AP/Getty Images

The crisis in Virginia state politics hasn’t subsided, but Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam won’t be stepping down.

Northam has been under pressure to resign after photos from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced, showing people in blackface and KKK robes. But the governor told his staff on Friday that he would not resign over the scandal, according to reports from Talking Points Memo and the Associated Press. A spokesperson confirmed to Vox that Northam is not resigning.

His stubbornness forestalls what was quickly becoming a succession crisis. If Northam would have left office, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would have succeeded him — but a college professor has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004, an accusation that the Washington Post appeared to find credible if uncorroborated when she contacted them about it in 2017. (Fairfax says the encounter was consensual.) A second accuser went public Friday, saying that the lieutenant governor had raped her in college.

Attorney General Mark Herring — who would have been the next in the line of succession after Fairfax — had revealed on Wednesday morning that he had also appeared in blackface at a college party in the 1980s, according to the Associated Press.

Just two years ago, Virginia Democrats delivered a resounding victory that turned the state decidedly blue. Northam won the governor’s mansion and Democrats picked up a significant number of legislative wins, affirmation that the party still had a future in the Donald Trump era.

Over the last week, the era of good feelings has come crashing down, with the top three Democrats ensnared in scandals founded in the state’s racist history and the country’s current reckoning with sexual assault.

How an abortion bill and an old yearbook photo put Ralph Northam’s career in jeopardy

The yearbook photo was first published on a conservative site, Big League Politics, when Northam was at the center of a controversy that fired up the right.

The firestorm started with a Virginia abortion bill, House Bill 2491, that would roll back some of the state’s requirements on abortion, including a 24-hour waiting period and a requirement that second-trimester abortions take place in a hospital.

The bill was always a long shot legislatively, especially because of a controversy over a provision that would reduce the number of doctors required to sign off on a third-trimester abortion from three to one. In a Wednesday radio interview, Northam discussed the matter, and that’s where things went awry.

Appearing to discuss what would happen if a child was born after a failed attempt at abortion, Northam said, “the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

Some took Northam’s comments as an endorsement of infanticide. “In just a few years, pro-abortion zealots went from ‘safe, legal, and rare’ to ‘keep the newborns comfortable while the doctor debates infanticide,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) in a statement on Wednesday. President Trump even mentioned the comments at Tuesday’s State of the Union speech.

A spokesperson for Gov. Northam told Vox his comments were “absolutely not” a reference to infanticide and that they “focused on the tragic and extremely rare case in which a woman with a nonviable pregnancy or severe fetal abnormalities went into labor.”

But in the wake of the comments, the photo of Northam’s page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook with a picture of a man in blackface and another in a KKK costume began to bubble up in conservative media outlets. And on Friday, the Virginian-Pilot published the photo and story accompanying it. Other media outlets confirmed it as well.

When the Virginian-Pilot reported on the photo on Friday, the outlet noted that it wasn’t clear whether Northam was actually in it. Northam’s statements have made it seem like he wasn’t clear on it either.

In a statement on Friday evening, Northam apologized for the picture and said he was, indeed, one of the people shown, though he didn’t say which one.

“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” he said. “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.”

He also released a video response on Twitter admitting his actions but refusing to resign. Then, Saturday morning, Northam reportedly called members of the state party to tell them he didn’t think it was him in the picture after all. And at a press conference on Saturday, he said the same publicly.

“I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe,” Northam said. “The photo appears with others I submitted on a page with my name on it. … In the hours since I made my statement yesterday, I reflected with my family and classmates from the time and affirmed my conclusion that I am not the person in that photo.”

He said there is “no way that I have ever been in a KKK uniform” but that he does have a recollection of wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume at a San Antonio dance contest. He explained he used “just a little bit of shoe polish” to dress up and won the contest because he had learned how to moonwalk. A reporter asked Northam if he could still moonwalk, and he seemed to contemplate responding before he said his wife told him “inappropriate circumstances.”

Two women say Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax sexually assaulted them

The Northam saga and the possibility of his resignation had put Fairfax, 39, the second black person ever to win statewide elected office in Virginia, on the cusp of becoming governor. Virginia Democrats and others praised him as a charismatic and effective politician, and politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had called for him to become governor.

Then a sexual assault allegation against Fairfax surfaced.

“Imagine you were sexually assaulted during the DNC convention in Boston in 2004 by a campaign staffer,” reads what Big League Politics reports is a private post online by Vanessa Tyson, now an associate professor of politics at Scripps College. “You spend the next 13 years trying to forget it ever happened. Until one day you find out he’s the Democratic candidate for statewide office in a state 3,000 miles away, and he wins that election in November 2017. Then by strange, horrible luck, it seems increasingly likely that he’ll get a VERY BIG promotion.”

According to Howley of Big League Politics, the post was shared by Adria Scharf, the executive director of the Richmond Peace Education Center in Virginia. Scharf has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.

Many details in the post match Fairfax’s biography. He was a staffer for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, working as a body man for vice presidential candidate John Edwards. Tyson works in California, a state thousands of miles away from Virginia. Fairfax and Northam were elected in 2017. And, of course, Fairfax could get a promotion if Northam decided to resign.

Tyson later came forward publicly; she is represented by the same law firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

In his statement, Fairfax says that “the person reported to be making this false allegation” approached the Post around the time of Fairfax’s inauguration in 2018. “The Post carefully investigated the claim for several months,” the statement says. “After being presented with facts consistent with the Lt. Governor’s denial of the allegation, the absence of any evidence corroborating the allegation, and significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegation, the Post made the considered decision not to publish the story.”

But the Post did not find “significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegations,” as Fairfax’s statement claimed — the newspaper was not able to confirm her story because Tyson said she had not told anyone about the assault when it happened.

Theresa Vargas of the Washington Post reported on Monday about the newspaper’s investigation into the 2004 incident:

The woman described a sexual encounter that began with consensual kissing and ended with a forced act that left her crying and shaken. She said Fairfax guided her to the bed, where they continued kissing, and then at one point she realized she could not move her neck. She said Fairfax used his strength to force her to perform oral sex.

The Washington Post, in phone calls to people who knew Fairfax from college, law school and through political circles, found no similar complaints of sexual misconduct against him. Without that, or the ability to corroborate the woman’s account — in part because she had not told anyone what happened — The Washington Post did not run a story.”

In a press conference on Monday, Fairfax said he and the woman who spoke to the Post had “a 100 percent consensual” sexual encounter in 2004, according to the New York Times. He also seemed to blame his political rivals for making her allegation public.

Another woman came forward Friday with another assault allegation against Fairfax. An attorney for Meredith Wilson released a statement alleging Fairfax raped Wilson in 2000 when they were both students at Duke University and saying that she had told friends soon after the alleged attack.

A Fairfax spokesperson told the Washington Post on Friday that the lieutenant governor wanted an investigation into “all of these matters” and that he would have further comment at a later time.

Mark Herring is next in line to become governor after Northam and Fairfax. He has a blackface scandal too.

Herring, the attorney general, follows Northam and Fairfax in the Virginia line of succession. But on Wednesday, he admitted that he, too, had put on blackface for a college party in 1980, when he and his friends “dressed like rappers.” Herring called it a one-time occurrence and said he had “a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others.”

“It was really a minimization of both people of color and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then,” Herring said in a statement.

The next person in line to become governor — in the scenario in which Northam, Fairfax and Herring all resigned their post — would be Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox. Cox won his majority when a name was drawn out of a bowl, in accordance with state law, to settle a tied state House race that swung control of the House to Republicans.

Should someone other than Northam become governor in the coming days, Virginia would enter an unprecedented situation. Every Virginia governor since the Civil War has served their full term, Larry Sabato, who leads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told me.

“It is completely new for us,” he said.

The process would go like this, if and when a new governor — whoever that might be — is sworn in:

There would not be a special election to replace Northam. The new governor would serve the rest of the governor’s current term, through 2021.

Virginia has a one-term limit for governors, but the new governor would likely be allowed to run again in 2021 because that person was not actually elected governor in 2017. The Virginia Constitution specifies that a governor is ineligible to run again “for the term next succeeding that for which he was elected.”

“The idea is that since [they] wouldn’t have been ‘elected to office,’ this would not apply,” Rebecca Green, an election law expert at the College of William & Mary, said in an email. Sabato described it as a “loophole.”

So the new governor could potentially serve for seven years, never before seen in Virginia history, if they took over for Northam and won reelection in 2021. For now, with Northam’s reported commitment to stay in office, it looks like that won’t come to pass. But it has been a harrowing week in Virginia politics nonetheless.


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