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A step-by-step guide to what happens if Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam steps down

A “completely new” scenario for Virginia if the governor resigns over KKK-blackface yearbook photo.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has not yet resigned over a picture from his yearbook that showed two people, one in blackface, the other in KKK robes.
Alex Edelman/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who won a much-celebrated and much-needed victory for his party the same year Donald Trump entered the White House, still hasn’t resigned since a yearbook page of his featuring a photo of two people in Ku Klux Klan robes and blackface became public.

Not yet, anyway, but that could change any minute. The governor’s resignation would thrust Virginia into uncharted political territory, state elections experts say.

Northam first acknowledged he was one of the people pictured in the yearbook and apologized, then walked back that apology, claiming he actually wasn’t in the picture while simultaneously admitting that he had worn blackface before, but at a different time. He faces intense pressure to step down, and he’s met with staff to figure out what to do next.

Should Northam ultimately decide to resign, 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.

Here’s what would happen upon Northam’s resignation:

  • Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would be elevated to governor. He would become the second black governor in the state’s history. (Should Fairfax for some reason not be able to serve, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is next in line. Fairfax has notably been forced in the past 24 hours to issue a statement rebutting sexual assault rumors.)
  • There would not be a special election to replace Northam. Fairfax would serve the rest of the governor’s current term, through 2021.
  • A special election to replace Fairfax as lieutenant governor could be called, though it is not guaranteed. Fairfax may appoint his own replacement, Sabato said, but the state legislature could mandate that a special lieutenant governor election be held in November, when many of the state legislative seats are on the ballot.
  • Virginia has a one-term limit for governors, but Fairfax would likely be allowed to run again in 2021 because he 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 Fairfax wouldn’t have been ‘elected to office,’ this would not apply to him,” Rebecca Green, an election law expert at the College of William & Mary, said in an email. Sabato described it as a “loophole.”

So Fairfax could potentially serve for seven years, never before seen in Virginia history, if he took over for Northam and won reelection in 2021. However, Sabato noted that Fairfax would likely face a challenge for the 2021 Democratic nomination, potentially from Herring, and then he would, of course, have to win the general election for another term.

The yearbook photo controversy has put Virginia politics in uncharted territory in more ways than one. For the time being, everybody is waiting to see what Northam does next after a tumultuous weekend.

The Virginia governor’s 1984 yearbook page features people in blackface and KKK hood

A photograph from Northam’s page in a 1984 medical school yearbook shows one person in blackface and another in a KKK costume.

The governor initially apologized for the picture a few hours after its release and confirmed he was one of the people in it. He did not specify which. But not even a day later, Northam began walking back his admission, reportedly telling state Democrats that he doesn’t recall taking the picture and has no intention of resigning.

It’s been a fast-moving story since the Virginian-Pilot published the photo and an accompanying story on Friday. The same photo had already been appearing in far-right media outlets — it appears Patrick Howley of Big League Politics had it first — after a recent controversy over Northam’s comments about the state’s abortion laws. Virginian-Pilot reporters obtained a copy of the yearbook photo from Eastern Virginia Medical School, and the Washington Post soon reported on the same picture.

The picture appears on Northam’s page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, under his name. The other photographs on the same page are of Northam.

Neither publication had been able to confirm whether Northam was in the blackface-KKK picture (and, if he was, which costume he was wearing). Here is how the Virginian-Pilot described the picture’s subjects:

The fourth photo on the half-page has two people, one wearing white Ku Klux Klan robes and a hood, the other with his face painted black. The person with the black face is also wearing a white hat, black jacket, white shirt with a bow tie and plaid pants. Both are holding canned drinks.

It’s unclear who the people in costume are.

However, Northam’s office released a statement Friday evening from the governor, apologizing for the photograph and appearing to confirm he was one of the people pictured:

Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive.

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.

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.

I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor.

But by Saturday morning, he had apparently reevaluated and was reportedly calling members of his state party to tell them he wasn’t in the photo.

The revelation of the yearbook picture comes amid controversy about Northam’s comments regarding a proposed Virginia law to relax abortion restrictions, which spurred backlash from the right and anti-abortion groups. Vox’s Anna North covered the controversy and Northam’s remarks, which his opponents claimed amounted to a tacit endorsement of infanticide.

The governor reportedly held a senior staff meeting on Sunday afternoon to discuss the calls for him to resign, which have come from Virginia Republicans but also from Democratic groups like the Congressional Black Caucus. As of press time, Ralph Northam was still the governor of Virginia.

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