If only: Northam’s missed chances to lead on race as governor

February 12, 2019 5:01 am

During a press conference at the Governor’s Mansion this month, Gov. Ralph Northam denied appearing in a KKK yearbook photo but admitted to moonwalking in blackface. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam is in full-fledged image rehabilitation mode, appearing in a nationally televised interview on CBS Sunday night and pledging himself to racial reconciliation in the wake of the furor over a racist photo that appeared on his medical school yearbook page.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Monday night that Northam will attend a forum later this month at Virginia Union University, a historically black university in Richmond, on what the school called his “apology tour.”

It seems clear is that he’s not resigning, even as he continues to stumble through statements on his blackface appearance. Or is it appearances?

For those keeping score at home, the governor has denied appearing in the yearbook photo after initially apologizing for doing so and continues to “misspeak,” at least according to his press office, about exactly where and when he appeared in blackface. (At the moment, it’s still officially just at the dance competition he reportedly won in which he impersonated Michael Jackson, but definitely not the yearbook photo).

Regardless, Northam wants everyone to know that he gets it now.

“Virginia needs someone that can heal. There’s no better person to do that than a doctor,” Northam told CBS’ Gayle King. “Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere. I have learned from this. I have a lot more to learn.”

It’s a shame that Northam, during the first year of his governorship, wasn’t presented with a choice that could have now allowed him to credibly lead on racial matters.

If only there was something from his tenure in office that would give people — including many black Virginians — who want to forgive his youthful blackface moonwalking and let him stay in the executive mansion something upon which to predicate that magnanimity.

If only the governor had been presented the opportunity to weigh in forcefully on behalf of a marginalized African-American community staring down the prospect of a giant, polluting industrial project planned for their rural area.

If only members of his own party and a gubernatorial advisory council had begged him to champion what had become the most controversial environmental justice case in Virginia.

If only someone on his staff had told him it was a really bad idea to pull two members off the State Air Pollution Control Board as it was weighing a permit for that same industrial facility — Dominion Energy’s Buckingham compressor station.

If only someone had told him it was tone-deaf to express concern about a Dominion compressor station in Maryland that might mar the view from Mount Vernon but clam up about the one in Virginia being planned for a former slave plantation in a community founded by freedmen that the state agency he oversees had authority over.

You get the point.

The calls for Northam to resign have been prompted by genuine outrage but also seem loudest among fellow Democrats who considered him an election year liability. Now, with a potential successor, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, embroiled in a serious scandal of his own, the cries for Northam to step down have been muted slightly.

And in the interim, humanizing profiles about Northam’s early life on the Eastern Shore and the mixed reactions of Virginians, many of whom think Northam shouldn’t step down, are being typed.

Has the governor really learned his lesson? Time will tell.

But in his first one-on-one interview since the photo broke, in the same flummoxing syntax that the nation has now become familiar with, Northam seemed to hedge on another racial controversy that literally could change Virginia’s landscape.

“I will take a harder line,” Northam told The Washington Post, when asked about divisive Confederate monuments. “If there are statues, if there are monuments out there that provoke this type of hatred and bigotry, they need to be in museums.”

If there are monuments out there?

If only something truly horrific, to use a word Northam has thrown out a lot lately, involving “hate and bigotry” had happened in a Virginia city that tried to remove a Confederate monument.

Of course, Unite the Right did happen. At the time, here’s what then-candidate Northam said:

“I believe these statues should be taken down and moved into museums. As governor, I am going to be a vocal advocate for that approach and work with localities on this issue,” Northam said in a statement. “We should also do more to elevate the parts of our history that have all too often been underrepresented.”

Since then, he’s been virtually silent on Confederate monuments. When a bill that would allow localities to remove them was swiftly smothered in a subcommittee last month, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office couldn’t be found, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

(Perhaps realizing his recent remarks about “if there are” monuments was a bad look, some anonymous Northam aide let slip to a member of the national press Monday that the governor “is telling people privately that if the commonwealth’s legislature puts a bill on his desk that provides the authority to bring down Confederate statues that he would sign it.”)

So now, after a racial flareup that brought him to the brink of resignation, the governor is willing to do what he said he’d do on the campaign trail in 2017, conveniently after any legislation that would do that is dead for the session.

Is the governor sincere now?

If only we knew.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]