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

A new African-American Advisory Board means Gov. Ralph Northam will have plenty of guidance from African Americans in the state, but the board itself won’t be able to do much else.

The board will have 26 members: Five ex-officio members that are also part of the governor’s cabinet and 21 non-legislative members. Fifteen of the 21 non-legislative members appointed by the governor must be African American.

“The creation of this board is far overdue,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, who carried the legislation to create the board. “Establishing the Virginia African-American Advisory Board ensures that the African-American community has a permanent voice in the commonwealth’s executive branch.”

Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Bagby, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, filed his legislation about two weeks before a photo of two men  — one in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe — was found on Northam’s medical school yearbook page. The governor first apologized for the photo, then said he wasn’t sure if it was him.

Northam said he would educate himself on racism and racial inequity, which includes a “reconciliation tour” that has, so far, occurred largely out of the public eye. It leaves his policy decisions as the only barometer of whether he’s become more knowledgeable about racism and inequity.

“To build a more accessible, inclusive and equitable commonwealth, we must ensure the voices of all Virginians are heard, particularly those from underrepresented and historically disenfranchised communities,” Northam said in a statement after signing legislation to establish the board.

“I look forward to working closely with the members of this board to advance policies and legislation to promote the economic, social, educational and cultural well-being of the African-American community in Virginia.”

Bagby was surprised an African-American Advisory Board didn’t already exist. About 20 percent of the state’s population is black, according to U.S. Census estimates.

He hopes the board will weigh in and drive change in criminal justice, education and economic development, like opening more government contracting to  black-owned small businesses.

Advisory boards have little authority. They may help governors form policy platforms or provide feedback on governors’ priorities.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus laid out their legislative priorities for Wednesday’s veto session and responded to criticism from Republicans for working with Gov. Ralph Northam on the issues despite their calls for his resignation. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

If there is something that could be addressed by legislation, it has to go through the governor, who doesn’t file legislation but can ask lawmakers to carry bills that advance his policy goals.

A voice is about all advisory boards are in the government, but that’s important, said Cecilia Barbosa, chair of the Virginia Latino Advisory Board.

“All groups in Virginia that are underrepresented in government need a way to have a voice with the administration,” she said.

The Latino Advisory Board focuses on broad topics, some of which overlap with the African-American Advisory Board, like education and affordable housing.

The African-American Advisory Board will be similar to the structure of the Latino and Asian advisory boards.

All three boards have the same duties laid out in state code: conduct studies on a given population, advise and make recommendations to the governor about issues affecting the group they represent and apply for and accept grant money to support their work, among other responsibilities.

Each board submits an annual report of activities and projects to the governor. The African-American Advisory Board will also submit its report to the General Assembly.

There are limitations on what the boards can actually do, Barbosa said. One of the biggest challenges is how often members change. Original members of her board were appointed in staggered terms for four years so people move in and out frequently, making it hard to work without interruption.

Still, it’s good to have the ear of the executive branch.

“I wouldn’t be cynical about it,” Barbosa said. “If it weren’t there, we would want it there.”

Last year as Northam took his spot as governor, he asked the Latino Advisory Board for recommendations on topics including state contract and procurement opportunities, affordable housing and wage theft.

Northam’s budget proposal to put more money toward making sure more state contracts go to minority- and women-owned businesses didn’t make it through the General Assembly’s reconvened session this year. Bills that require employers to provide pay stubs passed the General Assembly, though, and Northam signed it into law.

“In order to expand economic opportunity for all Virginians, our commonwealth must be open and welcoming: our doors must be open and our lights on,” he wrote in a letter to Latino Advisory Board members. “That is how my administration will operate, and we are eager to work with VLAB to further this goal.”

Since then, Northam or his cabinet members have attended VLAB meetings to invited the group to events, Barbosa said.

“This is a new relationship,” she said. “And so far, so good.”