Virginia governor clings to office amid uncertainty, furor
By ALAN SUDERMAN, Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam clung to his office Tuesday amid intense political fallout over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook and uncertainty about the future of the state’s government.
Nearly all of the state’s Democratic establishment has turned against the 59-year-old Democrat after the picture surfaced late last week of someone in blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Nationally, Democrats have denounced Northam, too, but no one from his Cabinet has resigned.
The politician next in line to be governor, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, has denied an uncorroborated allegation of sexual misconduct first reported by a conservative website. Fairfax told reporters the 2004 encounter with a woman was consensual, and he called the accusation a political “smear.”
The woman accusing Fairfax has retained Washington, D.C., law firm Katz Marshall & Banks and is consulting with the firm about next steps, said a person close to the legal team who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity. One of the firm’s founding partners, Debra Katz, represented Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her decades ago when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh denied the allegation and later was confirmed to the court.
The Associated Press is not reporting the Fairfax allegation because the organization has not confirmed it.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist who graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School and came to politics late in life, is one year into his four-year term. If Northam resigns, Fairfax would become the second African-American governor in Virginia history.
The sense of uncertainty over the state government’s future heightened Tuesday, known as the General Assembly’s “crossover day” – a deadline set by lawmakers as the last day for bills to be heard in the House or the Senate before crossing over to the other chamber. It’s one of the busiest legislative days of the year.
Northam stayed out of sight Monday as he met with his Cabinet and senior staff to hear their assessment of whether it was feasible for him to stay in office, according to a top administration official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The meetings included frank conversations about the difficulties of governing under such circumstances, the person said.
Calls from lawmakers for Northam’s resignation seemed to ease. State Del. Lamont Bagby, head of the Legislative Black Caucus, said Monday that there was little left to say: “I’m going to let him breathe a little bit, give him space to make the right decision.”
Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said he told Northam the state cannot afford a prolonged period of uncertainty over his future. Northam’s office is in the middle of negotiations with GOP lawmakers over a major tax overhaul and changes to the state budget. The Republicans control both houses of the legislature.
“One way or the other, it needs to be resolved,” Layne said.
The furor over the photo erupted Friday, when Northam first admitted he was in the picture without saying which costume he was wearing, and apologized. But a day later, he denied he was in the photo, while also acknowledging he once put on blackface to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas decades ago.
The state’s Republican House speaker said lawmakers are hesitant to seek Northam’s impeachment and hope he steps down instead.
“Obviously on impeachment, that’s a very high standard,” Speaker Kirk Cox said. “And so I think that’s why I think we have called for the resignation. We hope that’s what the governor does. I think that would obviously be less pain for everyone.”
Referring to the allegation against him, Fairfax said he was not surprised it came at a critical time: “It’s at that point that they come out with the attacks and the smears. It is unfortunate. It really is, but it’s sadly a part of our politics now.”
The Associated Press is not reporting the details of the accusation because AP has not been able to corroborate it. The Washington Post said Monday that it was approached by the woman in 2017 and carefully investigated but never published a story for lack of any independent evidence. The Post said the woman had not told anyone about it, the account could not be corroborated, Fairfax denied it, and the Post was unable to find other similar allegations against him among people who knew him in college, law school or in politics.
The woman did not immediately respond Monday to a voicemail, text message or email from an AP reporter.
The allegations were first reported by Big League Politics, the news outlet that first published the yearbook image.
Last week, Northam came under fire from Republicans who have accused him of backing infanticide after he said he supported a bill loosening restrictions on late-term abortions.
Late last month, Florida’s secretary of state resigned after photos surfaced of him in blackface as a Hurricane Katrina victim at a 2005 Halloween party.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Washington and Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, contributed to this report.