One Week Later, Ralph Northam Is Still Governor. He May Stay There.

After a week of scandal and chaos in Virginia politics, there's no sign that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is going anywhere, and there's very little that can be done to force him out of office.

It was just about a week ago that the news first broke about the discovery of the yearbook page of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam from his final year at the Eastern Virginia Medica School from 1984  which includes, along with pictures of Northam and others, a picture that depicts one person in blackface and another person wearing Ku Klux Klan garb. In his initial response to the news, Governor Northam apologized for the photograph and appeared to admit that he was one of the two people depicted in that photograph, although he did not say which one. This led a plethora of statewide and national Democrats to call for his resignation, something which at least initially seemed as though it would happen. Within twenty-four hours after the release of the report, though, Northam held a press conference in which he denied being either of the people in the photo although he did admit to having once darkened his skin in connection with a Michael Jackson impersonation he performed in San Antonio later in 1984. This flip-flop and the general weirdness of that Saturday press conference did not satisfy critics and led more of the Commonwealth’s top Democrats to call on him to step aside, a move that he has so far not taken.

In the week since all that transpired, Virginia politics has been thrown into further chaos thanks to, among other things, charges of sexual assault against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, who would succeed Northam were he to resign and the admission by Attorney General Mark Herring that he too had donned blackface when he was 19 as part of an impersonation of 80s rapper Kurtis Blow. Later in the week, the dumpster fire in Richmond took on a bipartisan tone when Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment admitted that he had been the editor of the yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute when several photographs of students in blackface were published in 1968, just months before the institution admitted its first African-American student. All of this has created a sense of chaos in Richmond even as legislators are rushing to complete the legislative session, including the passage of a budget for the upcoming Fiscal Year.

When this story first broke last Friday, it seemed that Northam’s days in office were numbered, but the developments with regard to Fairfax and Herring specifically have thrown that into doubt and, whether Virginia Democrats like it or not, it’s entirely possible that Governor Northam could end up hanging on to the end of his term in January 2022:

RICHMOND, Va. — Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia apologized. He held the ritual news conference of a humiliated politician, punctuated with a discussion of whether he could still do the moonwalk. He went into seclusion.

And so, here he is: diminished, abandoned, condemned — and still the governor of Virginia.

Mr. Northam, besieged after the revelation of a racist photograph on his medical school yearbook page, may remain that way for the rest of his term, which has almost three more years to run.

Improbable as it may seem, Mr. Northam is increasingly seen in Richmond, a state capital consumed by crisis and speculation, as a scandalized Democrat likely to hang on to his job — with his fortunes bolstered by the troubles of the men in line to succeed him, Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring.

“The timing of the other scandals certainly helps him, because the spotlight is no longer solely on him, and he is not the only story in town,” said Mark L. Keam, a Democrat in the Virginia House of Delegates. Mr. Keam, who previously called for Mr. Northam’s resignation, emphasized Thursday that the emergence of possible misconduct by the others did nothing to change the governor’s own culpability.

Hours later, the Statehouse drama widened further with the revelation that Thomas K. Norment Jr., the Republican majority leader in the State Senate, helped edit a college yearbook that featured slurs and racist photographs, including blackface

But even before the three follow-up scandals — the detailed allegation of sexual assault against Mr. Fairfax, Mr. Herring’s acknowledgment that he had worn blackface, and the disclosure about Mr. Norment’s yearbook — collectively rattled the Virginia Capitol, Mr. Northam had already decided he would ignore his party’s demands and stay in office.

He is far from the first governor to try to defy legions of naysayers within his government, in the Legislature, on editorial pages and on social media. Indeed, one embattled governor after another has attempted, at least initially, to remain in power; Mr. Northam is the third in the South to try it in the last decade.

“These are generally, by definition, competitive, high-achieving people who have worked incredibly hard and sacrificed a lot to get to this position in the first place, and so you could see why they would be reluctant to simply walk away,” said Ross H. Garber, a lawyer who has represented no fewer than four governors who were threatened with impeachment.

“Most successful politicians at high levels have had to withstand huge challenges, sometimes including scandals, to get to that position,” Mr. Garber said. “The instinct is to do what they have done before, and withstand it.”

Governors live and work in different environments than most other elected officials — surrounded by state troopers, housed in gated and guarded mansions, and insulated by large staffs — and that can fuel their willingness to defy demands for their resignations.

“They don’t have to go to the grocery store and go shopping, and be faced with the average person coming up to them and giving them negative feedback,” said André Bauer, who was South Carolina’s lieutenant governor during a period of political upheaval in 2009. “They’re able to withdraw a little bit during the more difficult times. They have the ability to miss some public appearances and let the public outcry die down a little bit.”

If Northam refuses to leave, he would not be the first scandal-plagued Governor with a seemingly doomed political future to hold on to power significantly longer than seemed likely when their respective scandals first broke. As the article notes, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley held on to power for more than a year after being accused of sexual misconduct. Missouri Governor Eric Greitens ultimately stepped aside but stayed in office for nearly five months after being hit with a scandal that included a felony indictment. Another Virginia Governor, Robert McDonnell completed his term notwithstanding an ethical cloud that was created by his acceptance of gifts from a family friend who was also seeking business opportunities with the state government. Additionally, while McDonnell was convicted on a number of charges related to that scandal, those convictions were ultimately reversed by the Supreme Court of the United States. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, meanwhile, managed to stay in office notwithstanding serious charges that he accepted bribes in connection with filling the Senate seat formerly held by former President Obama and thus had to be impeached and removed from office by the Illinois legislature after which he was ultimately convicted by a Federal jury and sentenced to prison. Finally, and perhaps most famously, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford held on to power amid a personal scandal involving an extramarital affair and ultimately managed to make a political comeback and win election to his old seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

All of these cases, of course, involve either criminal activity or scandals that took place while they were Governor. In Northam’s case, we are talking about an activity that while deeply offensive and inexcusable did not happen while he was Governor and occurred some thirty-five years in the past when Northam, now 59 years old, was 25 years old. Given that, and notwithstanding the fact that he has essentially lost the confidence of the entire Democratic Caucus in the Virginia legislature as well as the members of the state’s Congressional Delegation, it’s unclear exactly what can be done if Northam refuses to step aside. As with the Federal Constitution, the Virginia Constitution does include a provision providing for the impeachment of state officials such as the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General, but it’s text clearly seems to limit its coverage to events that happened while the individual in question was in office or, at the very least rise to the level of a criminal act:

The Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, judges, members of the State Corporation Commission, and all officers appointed by the Governor or elected by the General Assembly, offending against the Commonwealth by malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor may be impeached by the House of Delegates and prosecuted before the Senate, which shall have the sole power to try impeachments.

Based on this language, it doesn’t appear to me that appearing in blackface or Klan garb thirty-five years ago rises to the level of an impeachable offense under Virginia law. In theory, of course, what constitutes an “impeachable offense” really comes down to what a majority of the House of Delegates says it is. After such impeachment, it would be up to the State Senate to hear the trial of the case and determine if removal from office was appropriate. That being said, the fact that impeachment can mean whatever the appropriate legislative body wants it to mean doesn’t mean it should be applied liberally. In the case of the Federal Constitution, for example, the Founders clearly intended it to be an extraordinary measure used in extraordinary times, and that seems to be the case with the identical provision in the Virginia Constitution, which to my knowledge has never been utilized against a sitting Governor, Lt. Governor, or Attorney General. On the Federal side, for example, I would say that the use of the impeachment power was only appropriate once in American history, and that was with President Nixon who resigned before the House could vote to impeach. The Johnson Impeachment in 1868 was clearly nothing more than a blatantly political move based on a law that was itself unconstitutional. The Clinton Impeachment was, in my opinion, overreach in a situation where censure would have been more appropriate. While I very much support the idea of legislative branches being more assertive toward the Chief Executive, be that a President or a Governor, turning the impeachment power into a political tool is not the way to do it.

In any case, as I’ve alluded to before, the question of impeachment is out of the hands of Virginia Democrats. By a very narrow margin, Republicans control the House of Delegates and it would be up to them to open and proceed with impeachment proceedings. So far, there’s no sign that the GOP is at all inclined to take any action at all against Northam and, from a political point of view, there are plenty of reasons for them to leave him in power as long as possible. As I’ve noted before, Virginia’s midterm elections take place in November of this year. At that time the entire House of Delegates and the State Senate will both be up for grabs. From the Republican point of view, there’s at least some advantage to heading into those elections with the top three Democrats in the state under ethical and, in the case of Lt. Governor Fairfax, potentially criminal, clouds. At the margins, that may just be enough to preserve their majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate and to keep Democrats on the defensive heading into the inevitable shift to the races that will take place in 2021 when all three offices, Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General, will all be up for election. No matter how much they may want Northam out of he way before then, there’s little that Virginia Democrats can do about that.

Ralph Northam behaved like an idiot when he was 25 years old, and I do support those who say he should resign for the good of the Commonwealth due to the fact that he has largely lost his ability to effectively govern and placed the momentum by default in the hands of the legislature going forward, there seems to be very little that can be done if he refuses to leave office. That may yet happen but, so far, there’s no sign that Ralph Northam is going anywhere.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Kylopod says:

    Everything about this controversy stinks–not just the politics (just went I thought Virginia was on its way to becoming a safely blue state) but also the muddled way in which people have reacted to the controversies, where everything gets lumped together. First of all, I’m sorry but there’s a big difference between a white person doing an old minstrel-style blackface routine and a white person imitating a particular black celebrity. I’m not saying the latter is totally acceptable (I think it’s complicated, frankly), but it isn’t “racist” in and of itself. Yet much of the commentary treats the two things as if they are absolutely the same.

    Second, a crucial element to the calls for Northam’s resignation was how poorly he addressed the controversy when it came out. If he’d just said it was something stupid he did decades ago when he was very young and that he deeply regrets it and understands how offensive it is now, I frankly don’t think there’d be any good reason for calling for his resignation. It’s not like he’s got some long record of racism while in office or even during most of his adult life. The notion that elected officials have to have an absolutely unblemished record from cradle to grave, or they must resign, is ludicrous. Yet by immediately equating what Herring did with what Northam did, people are essentially implying the mere fact they had anything like this in their past is grounds for resignation.

    It now looks like there’s a good chance the only person who will end up stepping down is Fairfax. I can understand why–what he’s been accused of is orders worse. But the optics of a racism controversy ending with the black guy being the one sacrificed is terrible.

  2. James Pearce says:

    Based on this language, it doesn’t appear to me that appearing in blackface or Klan garb thirty-five years ago rises to the level of an impeachable offense under Virginia law.

    I lol’d IRL. It would be really weird if it was…

  3. Teve says:

    Second accuser just came out on Justin Fairfax though so he’s going to have to either switch to the GOP or resign.

  4. James Pearce says:

    @Teve: And to think, mere days ago, the prevailing wisdom was “Northam needs to resign so Fairfax can take over.”

  5. @James Pearce:

    Now we may end up with a situation where Northam ends up appointing Fairfax’s replacement.

  6. Mister Bluster says:

    Sure hope no one discovers that recording where I confessed to grabbing women by the pussy. And maybe I should pay off a few porn stars that I screwed. Can’t let anyone find out about any of this. It might make me look bad!
    The Once and Future Pud

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  7. Tyrell says:

    @Kylopod: @Kylopod:
    Now Joy Behar is in a fix about getting makeup and curly hair to look like a black woman some years ago. So far she has been silent and so has the network. No apology needed. And the Lester Holt whiteface brouha – that does not bother me.
    Think about Halloween. People dress how they want. There is no political correctness stuff on that night. Halloween is much like the “Purge” night: anything goes. By nine o’clock it is mostly over. I remember years ago one popular costume was of Judge Clarence Thomas which was very creative.
    The inanestream news media seems to get obsessed with this sort of stuff. Then they get in too deep and don’t know how to get out of it.
    How many people out there really keep up with this kind of stuff?
    I think one solution would be this disclaimer that all politicians and celebrities should say: “I have done some bad things in the past that were not wise and I should not have done them. Now let’s move on.” That should satisfy anyone.
    “Stop talking about it” (Morgan Freeman on race relations, “60 Minutes”)

  8. Mister Bluster says:

    Sexually molesting women. Committing adultry with porn stars.

    “I have done some bad things in the past that were not wise and I should not have done them.
    Now let’s move on.
    As long as it’s good with you Tyrell it works for me.”
    REPUBLICAN President Donald Trump

  9. Kari Q says:

    Given the events of the past week, Northam would be in no trouble at all if he’s stuck to his original “I’m really sorry and this isn’t who I am now” stand. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a white male politician in the South who didn’t wear blackface.

  10. Teve says:

    @Kari Q: I’m watching a friend’s Facebook thread right now where some idiot he knows is insisting that Hillary Clinton wore blackface, and nothing anybody says is getting through to this numbnut. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard that nonsense before.

  11. Gustopher says:

    This kid should probably not run for Governor of his state without a moment of reflection.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=nfwpcfI-Cx0

    Gov. Northam’s blackface minstrel and Klan photo is worse than give or take any version of blackface I have seen. There’s a range between well-intentioned offensiveness, being deliberately offensive to troll people, and just plain being an offensive human being. Those last two categories have a lot of overlap.

    I think AG Herring is relaxing in his home or office right now, pretty much in the clear. Part of that is the ongoing dumpster fire has moved on, but also he accepted responsibility for it.

    Northam started down that path, but then went to crazy town where no one believes him.

  12. Mikey says:

    @Teve: There’s a photo floating around where the man bears a passing resemblance to Bill Clinton and the woman is in blackface, and the right-wing idiots are claiming it’s Bill and Hillary even though the man’s hair is straight while Bill’s is curly and the woman’s eyes are brown while Hillary’s are blue, but other than that it’s TOTES THE CLINTONS MAN!

    https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/hillary-clinton-blackface-photo/

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: Florak offered that same song a week or so ago in one of the comment threads about Northam.

  14. Teve says:

    @Mikey: wow. That’s not even a good Photoshop. That’s just the photo of two totally different people, one of whom looks like Bill Clinton would kind of look if he lost 40 pounds.

  15. Tyrell says:

    @Teve: How long ago and under what circumstances?
    Decades ago and a Halloween costume trick or treat, or at a private party are a lot different than a few years ago at some public event.
    One other factor is the social media sites and activities that people did long ago are now resurfacing. Photos are going out everywhere*. Is it an indicator of their present and future behavior and mindset? What is the motive of these sort of things being brought up after so many years? Was a crime committed?
    How many of us did not do crazy things in adolescence and young adulthood activities? How many leaders and influential people today were at Woodstock? I know a few. And that does not change my opinion of them, even if they go around with a Jimi Hendrix t shirt on (I draw the line at the Che Guevara shirts).
    *Young people today need to be very cautious about what they put on these social sites. Parents need to monitor, monitor.

  16. Eric Florack says:

    In fairness, it should be said that there is a touch of coordination to all these events in Virginia.

    And as an aside, it seems to me a little strange watching Cory Booker call for Fairfax to resign when Booker has his own issues.

    Apparently, the accuser should not be believed, if the accused is you.

    And then hearing Terry Mcculleffe demanding Fairfax resign as well, It occurs to me most of this stuff has been hanging out there for years, which raises the question why now.

    I can’t help but think that somebody playing hardball within the Democrat Party. After all, we’ve not seen any Republican involvement in any of this. Apparently, they’ve decided to sit back and let the cannibals have their meal. Seems to me a wise choice.

    But, with that in mind, and given the proximity of all of this to Terry McAuliffe and others of the Clinton crime family, it seems to me there’s a pretty good chance that that’s where all this is coming from… these are tactics we’ve seen before from that crowd, after all.

    However all that falls out it seems clear at this point that at the very least this is Democrat Party bloodletting, originating from inside the Democrat Party.
    And those are aspects of all this that nobody else has dared to bring up yet.

    Interesting.

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  17. Mister Bluster says:

    (I draw the line at the Che Guevara shirts).

    What line?

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mikey: @Teve: Actually, he looks a lot more like Adam Copeland–the guy who wrestled as “Edge” in WWE–than he does like Bill Clinton. I hope this worked, I’ve never done a link to a picture

  19. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Teve: I searched the alleged photo of Hillary and Bill and was able to locate. It would’ve saved time if I’d gone directly to snopes.com. They blew this whole piece of fake news out of the water. To the mentally gridlocked, of course, such refutations have no validity.

  20. Stormy Dragon says:

    Va. Gov. Ralph Northam says he wants to focus rest of his term on racial equity

    Governor Frat Bro has spent a week thing about this and has decided that you all should be ashamed of yourselves for choosing to appear in his yearbook photo.

  21. Kylopod says:

    @Teve:

    and nothing anybody says is getting through to this numbnut.

    All you need to know about Facebook arguments.

  22. An Interested Party says:

    In fairness…

    You have no room to talk about fairness, considering you spread an obvious lie about Hillary Clinton in blackface…

  23. Teve says:

    @Kylopod: oh yeah I’m not arguing with the guy but I’m watching other people try to. He won’t back down even though those people aren’t the right height, Bill actually weighed about 40 or 50 more pounds than the guy in the photo did, and the woman who is supposedly Hillary has the wrong eye color. He’s just a total idiot, and I don’t argue with total idiots.

    It’s a good thing that when the Trumper idiots tried to hurt us they picked an incompetent idiot who is doing a botched job of it. Somebody evil but smart could have done a lot more to hurt liberals, young people, people of color, and the future of America and the world in general.

  24. Eric Florack says:

    @An Interested Party: is that anything like claiming you’re an Indian?

  25. Eric Florack says:

    @SC_Birdflyte: the only thing that citing snopes is going to get from me is hysterical laughter.