The Political Resurrection Of Ralph Northam

Nine months after what seemed like the end of his political career, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has mounted a comeback,

One week after Virginia Democrats captured both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in decades, many are taking note of what appears to be a political comeback of sorts for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who seemed on the brink of seeing his career end just nine months ago:

 Nine months ago, Democrats at every stratum in Virginia called on Gov. Ralph Northam to resign over a racist photograph on his medical school yearbook page.

Mr. Northam bumbled his response, admitting he was in the picture before saying he was not, then seemed like he might demonstrate Michael Jackson’s moonwalk at a news conference where he acknowledged blackening his face for a dance contest.

Now, after Democrats won control of the Legislature on Tuesday, Mr. Northam is positioned to be one of the most consequential Democratic governors in America in 2020, aiming to enact strong gun restrictions and L.G.B.T.Q. protections and clear the way to take down Confederate statues — all potential headline-making changes that could galvanize the party base nationally in the presidential race.

For Mr. Northam, a medical doctor with a rural drawl, and a political moderate whom Republicans once hoped to recruit, it is an astonishing reversal of fortune. His salvaging of a year that began in disaster is a testament to a political age in which the half-life of scandal is brief and where suburban voters are punishing Republicans because of President Trump. It also reflects Mr. Northam’s own efforts, largely out of the headlines, in repairing the damage with black constituents and lawmakers.

Virginians “supported me through this,” Mr. Northam said in an interview. “And they supported what our agenda has been on Tuesday, and now we need to deliver.”

Nudged to reflect on his personal arc of the past nine months, the governor deflected, steering attention instead to achievements in his two years in office: Medicaid expansion, criminal justice reform and luring an Amazon headquarters to Northern Virginia. “My drive is to serve Virginia. That’s been my life, one of service,” he said earnestly.

The scandalous events of February that drew intense media attention played no apparent role in dampening enthusiasm for Democratic candidates on Election Day, as the party once feared.

Northam’s nine months of controversy began, of course, with the seemingly out-of-the-blue discovery of the yearbook page of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam from his final year at the Eastern Virginia Medical 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. Later in the year, it was reported that an investigation into the origin of the photographs and who might have been in them was inconclusive. 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 resisted.

While state and national Democrats did speak out against Northam and Fairfax, and to some extent Herring. there was no move to remove them from office and it doesn’t appear likely that such a move will be coming in the future, especially since the state legislature ended its regular session months ago and the grounds for impeaching any of these men under the relevant provision in Virginia’s Constitution appears to be rather weak. Additionally, polling in the Old Dominion has not shown any signs that the public wants action such as impeachment. For example, Washington Post poll released not long after the scandals broke showed Virginia voters were evenly split on whether or not Governor Northam should resign, 

Part of the reason that Northam survived has to do with the fact that he largely stayed out of the public eye for much of the year and, crucially perhaps, for a large part of the campaign itself:

Most governors love the limelight during an election season, but Mr. Northam may have helped himself this year by quietly tending to alliances and candidates and largely letting events play out rather than be seen as trying to stage manage them. And by all appearances he seemed fine letting other politicians cut a bigger figure on the campaign trail.

Mr. Northam did appear at get-out-the-vote rallies in the final weeks before Election Day, and at two dozen political events over the summer. But his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, who in the spring ended a flirtation with a presidential run, was far more visible on the campaign trail. Mr. McAuliffe’s boisterous glad-handing was the opposite of Mr. Northam’s measured reserve. The former governor popped up at more than 125 parades and political events for candidates, sparking rumors that he might run again for governor in 2021. (Mr. Northam will be ineligible because Virginia governors cannot serve back-to-back terms.)

While Mr. Northam’s political action committee raised $1.5 million for Democrats on the ballot, it was a more modest sum than the $7.1 million that Mr. McAuliffe raked in for legislative races four years ago.

“What brought people to the polls on Tuesday, it was to vote for Governor Northam’s agenda,” said Jennifer Carroll Foy, a member of the House of Delegates. “I believe that no one wants to get in the way of what he can do here in Virginia.”

In the end, money was no problem: It rained down on Democrats from national anti-gun and abortion rights groups, and from individual donors in the state and around the country. All were driven to flip the General Assembly, where Republicans’ narrow majorities were the last barrier to unified Democratic control of state government for the first time in 26 years.

Another factor that gave Northam political breathing room was the fact that his own controversy was quickly overshadowed by those involving other Virginia politicians. The most serious of those, of course, were the charges of sexual assault at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and at Duke University, charges that the Lt. Governor has denied.. Additionally, within a week of the charges against Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring voluntarily stepped forward to admit that he too had “darkened” his skin as part of a talent show act and the Majority Leader of the State Senate, a Republican, made a similar admission. In other words, by mid-February, politics in Richmond had come to resemble a dumpster fire. Despite that, the story basically ended there and appeared to become even less important when polling started to show that most Virginians did not want Northam to resign over a thirty-five-year-old controversy.

A final factor in Northam’s favor is the fact that he is unable to run for re-election in 2021. Due largely to the workings of the Harry Byrd political machine back in the 1920s when the latest version of the state Constitution, Governors in Virginia can only serve one term at a time. They are free to run again once they’ve been out of office for four years, but unlike the Lt. Governor and Attorney General they cannot run for re-election. While several recent Governors have run for other offices, and two of them are currently serving the state in the Senate, serving one term has generally meant the end of a Governor’s political career. This means that voters know that, at the very latest, Northam will be out of office after 2021.

The Democratic victories last week, of course, mean that Northam will have a much more prominent role than he has in the past year as he works with the Democrats in the House of Delegates and Senate. For the most part, though, that agenda is likely to be driven by the legislature since this is generally the way things have worked in the Commonwealth for decades. Notwithstanding that, though, Northam will clearly be playing a bigger role in what happens in Virginia over the next two years than he otherwise might have been.

FILED UNDER: 2019 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held 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 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    As I said at the time:

    A clear majority of African-Americans want him to stay on. Which makes me think maybe white people shouldn’t get quite so far out over their skis until black people have had a chance to speak. This reminds me of the Washington Redskins controversy which ended when a poll showed Native Americans could basically a give a sht.

    It’s a very good thing that some white people in Virginia are repulsed by Northam’s blackface stunt. But there’s taking it too far and basically appropriating the outrage of those who should be most directly offended. Be outraged, but be sensible as well, as black Virginians clearly were.

    This was a perfectly legal if distasteful moment in Northam’s past. Everyone has a past, even if they deny it. There is no person reading this who has not done or said shameful things. In fact, there’s not a person reading this who hasn’t committed an actual crime – stealing office supplies, underreporting income to the IRS, going well over the speed limit or driving impaired. We are punishing the exposed and the honest, which rewards more successful liars and hypocrites.

    The standard simply cannot be, ‘Did you ever do anything that would make decent people cringe?’ I mean, someone has to be governor of Virginia, and as 100% of humans have a history some aspects of which are shameful, maybe focus on actual crimes – like the ones the Lt. Governor has been accused of – and particularly crimes committed while in office. You know, like using taxpayer money to extort election help from a desperate friendly nation.

  2. lynn says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “This reminds me of the Washington Redskins controversy which ended when a poll showed Native Americans could basically a give a sht.”

    It’s a bit more nuanced, I think.

  3. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    This was a perfectly legal if distasteful moment in Northam’s past. Everyone has a past, even if they deny it. There is no person reading this who has not done or said shameful things.

    It was also a distasteful moment in Northam’s (then) present, as to how he dealt with his past. Every statement had a different version of his story, from him being one of the people in the photograph, to him just deciding to have this photo that was not him on his yearbook page, to him previously having gone in blackface as Micheal Jackson, to his wife pulling him out of a press briefing before he could do a moonwalk.

    If someone did something dumb and offensive in their past — I don’t care, so long as they can either hide it well (people should be able to move on) or acknowledge it truthfully, with appropriate levels of embarrassment/shame/regret.

    Donning blackface is apparently something every white man who grew up in Virginia has done. It’s not that big of a deal — no one was physically harmed, etc.

    I thought his first statement was good, and that he should try to ride it out. Everything he said after that made me less supportive of him. But, if the Lt. Governor is an alleged rapist, then the blackface dude with the shifting story to avoid responsibility is probably better. Able to lead Virginia better, certainly.

    In fact, there’s not a person reading this who hasn’t committed an actual crime – stealing office supplies, underreporting income to the IRS, going well over the speed limit or driving impaired.

    That dead body was in my house when I bought it, I just haven’t gotten around to taking care of it yet.

    We are punishing the exposed and the honest, which rewards more successful liars and hypocrites.

    I would refer to Northam as exposed and dishonest.

    Further, your exposed vs. successful-liar distinction sounds a lot like the defenders of Trump. It wasn’t a quid pro quo because it was exposed before Zelensky was forced to make the statement. Attempted extortion isn’t a crime. Do they give a Nobel prize for attempted chemistry?

    It’s fine to commit collusion in public. “Russia, if you’re listening…” “China should be investigating the Bidens”…

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Either you misread or I wrote lazily: the exposed and the honest, was not meant to conflate the exposed and the honest, they are two different groups. ‘Exposed’ rather implies dishonesty. Some people are honest about their past misdeeds, repent, and are nevertheless attacked. Some are exposed.

  5. Raoul says:

    Gustopher: what Trump did was vile and bordline treasonous. Robbing a bank in plain sight is still robbing a bank. As to Northam, we need to be honest, Virginia early 1970s was a different place.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    @Raoul: This is exactly why I can’t get too miffed about racist and sexist assumptions/vocabulary in the books I read, most of which date back 80-100 years or more. Some reviewers comment on prior authors by holding them up to some purity measurement internal to the reviewer and as soon as any of said authors deviate from the Platonic standard poof all their writings are to be dumped in the trash and never read ever again. I can only ask whether the reviewers are willing to be similarly judged down the temporal pipeline of 100 years from now, when future Social Justice Warriors will probably be insisting that all approved authors be certified vegans….

  7. Timothy Watson says:

    Doug, your entire post is based on the false premise that Democrats have a single ounce of integrity.

    They don’t care that a serial rapist is the Lieutenant Governor (Justin Fairfax). They don’t care that Fairfax used a tax-funded spokesperson to threaten his victims with criminal charges if they spoke to police about his rapes. They don’t care that Fairfax has sued a media outlet for daring to air interviews with his victims.

    Justin Fairfax is everything the Democrats have accused Donald Trump and/or Brett Kavanaugh of being. Democrat candidates for the state legislature were even going around this year campaigning and claiming (lying) that an investigation had cleared Fairfax of any wrongdoing.

    In addition, the former Governor (Terry McAuliffe) and Senate minority leader (Dick Saslaw, soon to be the Senate majority leader) also campaigned for a twice disbarred statutory rapist (Joe Morrissey).

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Timothy Watson:
    Al Franken.

  9. grumpy realist says:

    @Timothy Watson: If you’re worried about rapists in office, I suggest you turn your eyes higher up, to Mr. Donald Trump.

  10. 95 South says:

    @Timothy Watson: Stop changing the subject, Timothy. We’re talking about Orange Man being bad, not Virginia.

  11. Ken_L says:

    Northam did exactly the right thing, even if his public comments were fumbled. Franken should have done the same. And Democrats from Pelosi down should have learned to shut their mouths when these kinds of things happen rather than rushing to Twitter to demonstrate how high-minded they are.

    When the mother of all ratfucking starts in 9 months time against the Democratic nominee, remember Ralph Northam.