Pressure on Ralph Northam Intensifies as Virginia Capitol Is Thrown into Chaos
RICHMOND, Va. — Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, abandoned by allies in the Democratic Party and besieged by demands that he resign, met with his cabinet on Monday as state legislators returned to a Capitol thrown into chaos by the governor’s insistence on staying in office despite revelations that a photograph showing people in blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes was displayed on his medical school yearbook page.
But even after meeting Sunday night with a group of his African-American aides, most of whom told him the only way he could clear his name would be to quit, Mr. Northam was giving no indication that he intended to step down.
As Mr. Northam dug in, his onetime allies in the state and national Democratic Party intensified their pleas that he quit, angry and embarrassed at the prospect of being saddled with a governor suddenly compromised by his past. While denying he posed in the racist costumes depicted in his 1984 yearbook — after initially acknowledging it — Mr. Northam admitted on Saturday that in the same year he had used shoe polish to darken his face for a Michael Jackson-themed costume at a dance party.
Stunned state legislators arrived Monday for their weekly session uncertain who would be governor by the end of the day. Swarmed by reporters, Kirk Cox, the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates who has called on the governor to quit, said that he did not want to pursue impeachment against Mr. Northam and that it was uncertain if the matter met the threshold for impeaching him.
Mr. Cox’s remarks heartened Mr. Northam’s advisers, who said on Monday that the governor was intent on remaining in office and trying to prove somehow that he was not in the photograph.
But the governor, already isolated from Virginia’s political leaders, was fast becoming a pariah outside Richmond, too, after a wave of top Democratic leaders, including most of the contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination, called on him to resign.
And the turmoil enveloping the state only grew when, at 2:55 Monday morning, aides to Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would succeed Mr. Northam were he to resign, issued an extraordinary statement denying an online report that the lieutenant governor had once committed sexual assault.
“He has never assaulted anyone — ever — in any way, shape or form,” said two of Mr. Fairfax’s top staff members. They were responding to an accusation published late Sunday that in 2004 he sexually assaulted a woman while at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Mr. Fairfax’s aides — his chief of staff, Lawrence Roberts, and his communications director, Lauren Burke — said The Washington Post had investigated the claims around the time of the lieutenant governor’s inauguration last year but did not publish an article. The Post published an article on Monday explaining its decision.
The fallout from the revelations about Mr. Northam spread beyond the political realm, as the governor and William & Mary agreed that he would not attend the formal inauguration of its president on Friday. “That behavior has no place in civil society — not 35 years ago, not today,” said Katherine Rowe, the president of the university, Virginia’s oldest institution of higher learning. “It has become clear,” she added, “that the governor’s presence would fundamentally disrupt the sense of campus unity we aspire to and hope for with this event.”
By Monday morning, Mr. Northam had spent more than 60 hours in deepening political isolation, abandoned by Democrats who quickly came to see his diminished standing as a burden on two fronts: their policy agenda, including matters like teacher pay and tax policy, and their efforts to capture control of the House of Delegates and the Senate this year. Both chambers are within reach for the party, which has made gains throughout the state in recent years.
“It has created a dark cloud,” said Mark L. Keam, a legislator from Northern Virginia who was among the Democrats afraid of a loss of leverage as long as Mr. Northam remained the titular head of the party in Virginia.
“Right now,” he added on Sunday, “the issue that we must resolve is how the governor presides over the current legislature.”
This week is among the most crucial for the General Assembly, which faces an all-important deadline for bills to advance.
Mr. Northam, who attended his longtime church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore on Sunday morning, has commented publicly just three times since the photograph emerged online on Friday. He first issued a statement on Friday, when he said he was “deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now” and indicated that he would seek to serve out his term, set to expire in 2022. A video message released a short time later reiterated the governor’s position.
But on Saturday, Mr. Northam stunned Richmond when he reversed course and said he had concluded that he was not, in fact, in the photograph on his yearbook page. “It was definitely not me,” Mr. Northam said at a news conference. “I can tell by looking at it.”
[Read about Ralph Northam’s news conference in Richmond.]
Mr. Northam’s shift did little, if anything, to stanch the calls for his resignation; some Democrats believe it lent them even greater credence and urgency.
“If it wasn’t him in the photo, he should have said that on Friday,” former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Mr. Northam’s Democratic predecessor, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “I have no idea what was going on in the governor’s office on Friday.”
Some Democrats, like Mr. McAuliffe, have maintained their belief that Mr. Northam would resign and stanch speculation about whether other state officials might try to remove him through impeachment or the Virginia Constitution’s version of the 25th Amendment.
And even as he battled for his job, Mr. Northam himself suggested on Saturday that the time could come for him to step aside. Asked at one point about his relationship with Mr. Fairfax, the governor described how the lieutenant governor was “very supportive, and he will continue to be supportive.”
But then he mentioned how electing someone to be lieutenant governor was, on the part of voters, an act of faith that the victor would be ready to assume the state’s top office, if necessary.
“He’ll be ready to do that,” Mr. Northam said.