A survivor’s tale: How Northam emerged from a PR mega-disaster

December 23, 2019 12:01 am

Gov. Ralph Northam held a public cabinet meeting in November to lay out his policy goals for the coming legislative session — bills that have failed in past years but are now likely to pass under Democratic control of the General Assembly. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As the dusky gloom deepened on the rainy first day of February, the news hit like a thunderbolt. A photo on Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook depicted one man in a Klan outfit and another in blackface. A conservative blogger had uncovered what opposition researchers and journalists for a decade did not. 

Northam, who’d enjoyed a solid first year as Virginia’s 73rd governor, reflexively apologized for appearing in one of the photos, then, upon further reflection, said he was not in the image. Further, he would later assert, he had no idea how the photo came to be on his yearbook page.

Breathless, nonstop news coverage wasn’t new to Virginia’s leadership. We’d seen it in the fall of 2002 when two snipers carried out a murderous rampage. We saw it again five years later when a gunman killed 32 people and injured 23 at Virginia Tech before killing himself as police stormed in. 

But Northam’s plight carried a new level of media and political urgency, drawing universal condemnation. As the frenzy began that Friday evening, it appeared Northam’s governorship could not survive the weekend. Nowhere were howls for his immediate resignation louder and more vehement than from within his own Democratic Party.

As hopeless as his situation seemed the first night, he somehow made it worse with a disastrous Saturday news conference where he reversed the previous day’s hasty lamentations. Conversations with his wife, Pam, and Friday night phone calls with old classmates convinced him that he wasn’t in the damning photo.

But then he admitted dabbing shoe polish on his face for a mid-1980s dance contest where he emulated Michael Jackson. Things hit rock bottom when, before a live worldwide television audience, he was about to take a reporter’s dare to show that he could still perform Jackson’s famed “moonwalk” until the first lady stopped him with the only wise words uttered that afternoon: “Not appropriate.”

That night, he was pilloried by not one but two withering parodies on “Saturday Night Live,” whose sketch writers couldn’t match the comic absurdity of the actual event. In politics, being laughed at is as bad as it gets. 

Dead man (moon) walking, right?

‘The most consequential governor’ 

A poised, smiling and confident Ralph Northam stood before the General Assembly’s budget-writing committees on Tuesday, presenting the only two-year state spending blueprint that he will fully execute during the single, non-renewable four-year term to which the state Constitution uniquely limits him.

His confidence was well-founded. He could look victoriously at the Republican lawmakers who had foiled his policy aims knowing that come January, they would relinquish their House and Senate majorities and the powerful committee chairmanships that come with it. In their place would be Democrats, who had swept November’s legislative elections with his help. He was far from the pariah he had been nine months earlier.

Northam’s budget may be the most progressive in Virginia history, one that only a governor sure of his footing could proffer. It seeks sharply higher taxes on gasoline and cigarettes, an end to annual car inspections, nearly $900 million for higher education capital improvements, with more than a third of that dedicated to historically black Norfolk State and Virginia State universities. 

The Virginia Mercury’s Ned Oliver observed House Speaker-designate Eileen Filler-Corn mouth the words “Thank you” to Northam as he announced $200 million he proposed for the new Democratic-led appropriators to use at their discretion.

For good measure, Northam has additionally proposed ending a state stipend for maintaining Confederate cemeteries and redirecting it for the care of African American graves, the Mercury reported Thursday.

 “I’ve always been focused on issues of race and equity,” Northam said in an interview. “For me, this has never been about Ralph Northam. This has been about Virginia.”

While it’s difficult to fathom a crisis response worse than the one his team initially presented, his image rehabilitation plan has been simple and effective — actions, not words, in the form of steady governance with special attention to issues important to black Virginians.

The strategy was sound. Josh Dare, who works with clients on communications and reputation management issues at The Hodges Group, calls it Northam’s “great redemption tour.”

“This is someone who knew in his heart that this isn’t really who he is, has reflected that in his policies and lived up to the trust of people who gave him a second chance,” Dare said.

The governor also benefited from timely events outside his control. 

Demands for his resignation, particularly from fellow Democrats, softened after his would-be successor, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, was publicly accused by two women of sexually assaulting them nearly 20 years ago. Fairfax strenuously denies the allegations. Soon, scandal had enveloped all three top statewide elected officials (all Democrats) when Attorney General Mark Herring acknowledged that, as a University of Virginia undergraduate in 1980, he had worn blackface in dressing as rapper Kurtis Blow.

Another pivotal moment came after a gunman killed 12 people at the Virginia Beach city government complex in May. Northam proposed several gun control bills and summoned the General Assembly into a July special session to consider them. The GOP-led legislature adjourned the session moments after it convened without considering any of the bills. The narrative shifted to seeming Republican indifference toward gun violence. That, plus President Donald Trump’s low popularity in urban and suburban Virginia, drove a large Democratic and moderate voter turnout. 

“Republicans made a horrific mistake in July,” said longtime Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth. “Now, Ralph Northam has the chance to be the most consequential governor for Democrats in more than a quarter of a century. He’s got a Democratic legislature and he’s inheriting a strong economy.”

‘Secure in who I am’

If this outcome seemed unlikely 10 months ago, perhaps it’s because only Northam’s oldest and closest friends knew that this was hardly the first — or even the worst — adversity has faced. 

In 1990, he was an Army Medical Corps doctor in Operation Desert Storm treating soldiers’ battlefield wounds. That has a way of creating a perspective and perseverance uncommon in his current line of work. 

“I’ve been in politics long enough to be secure in who I am,” Northam said.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]