Northam Clings to Office in Virginia, Risking Democrats’ Ambitions
Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia had a fragile, defiant hold on power on Sunday as he and a quickly eroding coalition of allies rebuffed demands for his resignation after the revelation of a racist photograph on his medical school yearbook page.
Mr. Northam’s hopes for political survival, Democratic and Republicans officials increasingly believe, are a mounting humiliation for the state, and risk his fellow Democrats’ policy ambitions and their aspirations for crucial state elections this year, when all 140 legislative seats will be at stake.
“The question now is: Can you lead? Can you help us heal?” said Representative A. Donald McEachin, Democrat of Virginia, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Given the actions that he’s demonstrated over the past 48 hours, the answer’s clearly no.”
Mr. Northam has offered shifting accounts — first, a Friday night apology “for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo,” which shows one person dressed in blackface and another as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, followed on Saturday by professed certainty that neither person in the photograph was him. His stance, and refusal to step down amid a torrent of pressure from his party, has fueled a crisis in Virginia that has rippled into national politics.
“I tell the truth. I’m telling the truth today,” Mr. Northam said on Saturday at the Executive Mansion in Richmond, where he denied a role in the yearbook photograph but acknowledged that he had darkened his face with shoe polish for a Michael Jackson costume at a dance contest in 1984.
But elected officials and strategists in both parties said they believed Mr. Northam was too far compromised to remain in office, his authority and power undercut gravely by his whiplash-inducing efforts to contain the fallout from the picture, which appeared on his page in the 1984 yearbook at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
On Sunday morning, Mr. Northam worshiped at First Baptist Church Capeville on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, which he has long attended. The Rev. Kelvin F. Jones, who said he had told the governor on Saturday that he needed “to be in a place where you get loved on,” summoned Mr. Northam and his wife to the front of the sanctuary. Dozens of parishioners surrounded the couple, who bowed their heads, their faces stoic, and swayed to background music.
“We circle and pray for them,” said the pastor, who opened the service with the biblical account of Jesus Christ and the question of who should be the first to cast a stone.
Mr. Northam asserted on Saturday that he had never seen the racist photograph until its disclosure online on Friday, in part because he had not purchased a yearbook. The photograph’s presence on his page, he surmised, was a mistake on someone else’s part.
Although Mr. Northam faces pressure from Republicans, his own Democratic Party has been the most vocal force in seeking a resignation.
“We no longer believe he can effectively serve as the governor of Virginia and that he must resign,” Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine and Representative Robert C. Scott, all of them Democrats and two of them former governors themselves, said in a statement on Saturday evening.
But as of Sunday, the start of one of the most important weeks of this year’s legislative session, Mr. Northam remained the state’s 73rd governor, even as he grew more isolated.
“I can appreciate his desire for reconciliation, and I thank him for that notion,” Charniele L. Herring, a Democratic state legislator from Alexandria, said in an interview after the governor’s news conference on Saturday. “But there are too many important issues at stake right now in our commonwealth.”
The question of Mr. Northam’s political fate has also reverberated to the barely-begun presidential campaign trail, where Democratic candidates and potential candidates have insisted that he resign. President Trump, a Republican, spoke out on Saturday night, when he wrote on Twitter that Mr. Northam had done something “unforgivable!”
“Ed Gillespie, who ran for Governor of the Great State of Virginia against Ralph Northam, must now be thinking Malpractice and Dereliction of Duty with regard to his Opposition Research Staff,” Mr. Trump wrote. “If they find that terrible picture before the election, he wins by 20 points!”
But most of the weekend’s political discussions appeared to focus on what would happen next and whether Mr. Northam was too politically wounded to lead the state, especially during a legislative session.
“You’ve got to work as one unit to move your commonwealth forward, and he’s just not going to have that ability to do it,” said Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who was Virginia’s last governor, on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Mr. McAuliffe’s assessment was not any different from many other veterans of Virginia politics.
“At a critical juncture in this legislative session, we need to focus on the important work of governing,” the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said in a statement. “We cannot continue this work with Governor Northam at the helm.”
Republican leaders in Virginia have sounded similar concerns. In a statement on Saturday, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, and other Republican legislators warned that Mr. Northam’s “ability to lead and govern is permanently impaired.”
Mr. McAuliffe, under whom Mr. Northam was lieutenant governor, predicted that his successor would “do the right thing” and resign “relatively soon.”
Democrats fear that if Mr. Northam remains, he will prove a drag on the party’s fund-raising and jeopardize its efforts to persuade voters in a year when control of both legislative chambers is expected to be bitterly and closely contested.
It is not clear how legislators and other state leaders, like Attorney General Mark R. Herring, will proceed if Mr. Northam continues to insist on staying in office. Scholars and Virginia officials have been studying the State Constitution and its provisions to oust a sitting governor.
Virginia’s Constitution allows the impeachments of governors for “offending against the Commonwealth by malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty or other high crime or misdemeanor.” If Mr. Northam chooses to remain in office and legislators ultimately seek his impeachment, the House of Delegates would be the first legislative chamber to consider the matter. The Senate would conduct any subsequent trial and determine whether Mr. Northam kept power.
Statehouse impeachments have surfaced across the country in recent years, when governors of Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey and South Carolina all faced at least the specter of removal. Only one, Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, was ultimately ousted through impeachment proceedings, though several other governors resigned.
The Virginia Constitution also offers a second, equally disruptive mechanism that is similar to the United States Constitution’s 25th Amendment. In Virginia, a triumvirate of officials — the attorney general, the speaker of the House of Delegates and the president pro tempore of the Senate — may conclude that a governor is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” In such an instance, which can also be prompted by a majority of the Legislature, the lieutenant governor becomes the acting governor.
A governor may contest such a move by the state officials or the Legislature and seek reinstatement, setting up a more formal review process by the General Assembly.
Mr. McAuliffe said he did not anticipate there would be any proceedings like impeachment.
“I know Ralph very well,” he said. “It will not come to that. And if Ralph is watching this today, I know how much he loves this Commonwealth of Virginia, and you’ve got to make the right decision. You’ve got to make the right moral decision.”
If Mr. Northam resigns, Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax, a Democrat, will ascend to the governor’s office. Mr. Fairfax, who is black, broke his silence after the governor’s news conference but did not directly urge him to stay or quit, saying in a statement that “we must make decisions in the best interests of the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”