Imagine the political climate the commonwealth would’ve faced had Gov. Ralph Northam acceded to the harsh voices demanding his resignation, following the discovery months ago of a racist photo on his decades-old yearbook page.
We could’ve had hearings in the General Assembly over rape allegations against Justin Fairfax, who would’ve risen to the state’s chief executive from the post of lieutenant governor. (We still might – though the spotlight isn’t nearly as strong on the state’s No. 2 elected official.)
Gridlock would be worse in the state House and Senate, where Republicans hold razor-thin margins over Democrats.
Plus, legislators would be frequently tempted to demand sanctions against political opponents – no matter how severe the offense, no matter how ancient the allegation.
Throw in Attorney General Mark Herring’s admission that he too used blackface in college, and state Democrats were reeling.
All of that comes to mind following a recent poll by the University of Mary Washington, in which the guv’s standing among Virginians has made a strong comeback following his winter of discontent.
His approval rating now is 47 percent, just 8 points lower than what pollsters found pre-scandal in September 2018. The blackface controversy isn’t gone, but it’s certainly not in the forefront. (When I covered a groundbreaking last month in Norfolk for a children’s mental health hospital, nary a discouraging word was uttered as Northam addressed 600 people.)
Most Virginians won’t soon forget the chaotic days of early February and the conflicting statements coming from the governor. A photo was publicized on Northam’s 1984 yearbook page from Eastern Virginia Medical School of a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb; Northam initially apologized for being in the photo.
Then he strongly denied it at a press conference.
Yet, he also admitted he had put shoe polish on his face in 1984 to play Michael Jackson in a dance contest. Fortunately for him, Northam’s wife stopped the guv from showing whether he could still pull off the late pop star’s dance moves.
Talk about a visual.
Many lawmakers – fellow Democrats and opposition Republicans alike – demanded he resign. Some of those most vocal and incensed were members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. There was intrigue because of the fall elections for the General Assembly, in which all 140 seats are on the ballot, and whether Northam’s status would drag down his party.
All I could keep thinking: Why would resignation be proportionate to the reputed offense? Had Northam done nothing showing his commitment to blacks and the disadvantaged in the years since he entered elective office?
Yes, he was an adult in 1984. So if he was in that photo – never proven, by the way – he was wrong. But why was quitting the only acceptable penalty? That’s a mindless all-or-nothing scenario.
It was as if Northam, pre-scandal, had done nothing to assist a multitude of Virginians – through Medicaid expansion, pay raises for teachers, and maintaining favorable conditions for businesses. Days after the yearbook photo was publicized, Northam’s administration announced he had restored civil rights to more than 18,000 released felons since taking office in early 2018. Blacks are disproportionately represented in the category.
There’s no question Northam has been mending fences since the scandal, and he’s probably focused on issues critical to African Americans in ways he might not have planned. That doesn’t mean he was never their ally.
He signed into law a bill forming the state’s first African-American Advisory Board. Del. Lamont Bagby, head of the Legislative Black Caucus and a Richmond Democrat, had filed the bill shortly before the controversy broke. Northam has since named the 18 members. They will advise the governor about issues important to African Americans in the state.
In June, he set up the Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law. Northam spoke about the legacy of slavery at Fort Monroe this summer, gaining standing ovations. He’s also named the state’s first-ever director of diversity, equity and inclusion, which is a senior-level position.
Del. Jay Jones is a first-term Norfolk Democrat who spoke on the House floor toward the end of the session this year. Though he didn’t personally call on Northam to resign in that address, he said he’d felt anger, grief, angst and despair after the yearbook photo came to light.
Jones also talked about the racism his parents and grandparents had faced in Norfolk.
When I interviewed him this week, Jones lauded Northam for initiatives taken this year – and years prior as governor, lieutenant and state senator. He stands behind his earlier comments, but Jones added he appreciates Northam’s actions since February.
“There’s been some real investment by the governor in communities that the black caucus represents,” he said. “The governor and administration have taken steps in the right direction.”
Another sign of Northam’s comeback: Republicans have cooled it on the “Governor Blackface” comments they’d hurled. They weren’t getting any traction with voters.
Northam was smart to stay the course and refuse to resign.
Sometimes, the conventional wisdom is simply dumb.