RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is wielding renewed power as Virginia’s chief executive four months after nearly resigning over a racism scandal that his own party said left him unable to lead.
Emboldened by encouraging internal poll numbers and growing support from fellow Democrats — though most never retracted their calls for him to step down — Northam is becoming more assertive.
He has emerged from hunkering down in Richmond to resume signing bills in ceremonies around the state. He is once again making his schedule public a week in advance. He has taken high-profile actions — such as vetoing a criminal sentencing bill because he said it would hurt African Americans — and is working to overhaul the way public schools teach black history.
His political action committee is back to boosting Democratic candidates, though the account is smaller than it should be for a sitting governor.
Northam’s order last week for a special legislative session on gun control in the wake of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach raised the stakes considerably. Seizing on an issue that Democrats say gives them an advantage in this increasingly urban, blue state, Northam was able to summon lawmakers to Richmond to stand at his side for the announcement as though nothing had torn them apart.
Then he made the rounds of national TV and NPR interviews for the first time since the scandal — not to talk about his foibles but as the leader of the state.
Republicans derided the effort as a shameless political stunt.
If it is, it could actually work. Should Northam get concessions from Republicans during the July 9 session, he will have pulled off a historic coup. If Republicans balk, Democrats can use it to fire up their base in a pivotal election this fall, when they are trying to erase the two-seat majority the GOP holds in each chamber and seize control of the legislature.
Democratic majorities in the House and Senate would give Northam the legislative backing to accomplish more than any Democrat in decades: all while under a cloud, still a pariah with a questionable political future.
“It would put him in a rare position,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, which released a poll in April that showed most African Americans wanted Northam to stay in office. “And I would imagine all those Democrats who had called for his resignation would just forget about it. They would just act like nobody sees that elephant in the corner.”
A Virginia governor hasn’t had his own party control the legislature since the second half of Republican Robert F. McDonnell’s administration, from 2012 to 2013. The last time Democrats controlled the “trifecta” — the two legislative chambers and the governorship — was 1993.
In some ways, little has changed since Feb. 1, when a conservative website published a photo from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page showing someone in blackface and someone in Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam first took responsibility for the picture. Then — in a nationally televised news conference — he disavowed the photo but admitted darkening his face for a dance contest that same year.
Northam still can’t explain the photo. Back in the national spotlight after a gunman killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building on May 31, Northam continues to struggle with questions about the scandal in radio and TV interviews. His fundraising during a crucial election year for the legislature is sharply diminished. And Republicans mock him mercilessly.
“It doesn’t matter if Northam is vetoing or signing legislation, he is still a racist that’s doing everything he can to stay in power. It’s embarrassing to all Virginians,” said John March, spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia.
But members of his party have warmed up to him again. Last week, several high-profile Democrats who questioned Northam’s leadership in February praised him for that quality in calling the special session on guns, including U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner (Va.), as well as Northam’s scandal-scarred attorney general, Mark R. Herring.
“When he makes moves such as [calling the special session], it clearly indicates that he won’t shy away from opportunities to lead,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus — which has not withdrawn its demand for Northam to resign.
“I think we all have a duty to govern even in the face of adversity,” Bagby said.
He praised Northam for signing his bill to create an advisory board on African American issues and for taking other actions aimed at racial equity.
Last week, the governor signed a bill sponsored by Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake) to eliminate minimum-wage exemptions for positions such as shoe-shiners, a leftover from the Jim Crow era designed to harm black workers. Northam also went a step further and announced a commission to scour the state code so that any other vestiges of Jim Crow could be purged.
Similarly, Northam signed bills last week aimed at reducing the maternal mortality rate, then announced a sweeping effort to understand why black women are more than twice as likely to die during childbirth as white women. He pledged to end the disparity by 2025, instructing state agencies to expedite Medicaid enrollment for pregnant women and directing health departments to increase cultural bias training, among other steps.
Such actions are the outgrowth of a steady schedule of meetings that Northam has maintained with black lawmakers and faith and civic leaders.
Much of what he has done has been modest in scope but heavy with symbolism. Northam petitioned the board overseeing historic Fort Monroe, a former Army post located where the first Africans were brought ashore in Virginia in 1619, to remove an archway memorializing Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president who was held prisoner there after the Civil War. Northam also urged the state transportation board to let Arlington rename Jefferson Davis Highway.
Bigger efforts are in the works. Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, said the administration has launched a process to review K-12 curriculums to fashion a more inclusive way to teach history and civics.
“The African American experience we don’t feel is as complete as it should be,” Mercer said, adding that the review could take a year.
In addition, Mercer said, Northam is preparing to take a “bold” executive action on women- and minority-owned small businesses, setting specific goals to increase their presence in state contracting.
“It takes a tremendous amount of oversight to make sure goals are met,” Mercer said. “You can’t just talk about it, you’ve got to do the work. There’s a reason why other administrations haven’t either tackled it or gotten it done — it takes time; it takes a lot of work.”
He added that of the 60 people whom Northam appointed on Friday to the boards of visitors of state colleges and universities, 35 are minorities.
At the same time, Northam’s political action committee has come back to life after remaining dormant for the first few months after the scandal. It is still lagging in fundraising, and Northam has ceded the limelight to former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who is popping up at private events with candidates all over the state.
But Northam’s PAC, The Way Ahead, has made meaty donations in recent weeks — a total of $160,000 so far this year, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. That includes $25,000 to Del. John J. Bell, who is running for the Loudoun-area Senate seat being vacated by Republican Richard H. Black, and another $25,000 to Missy Cotter Smasal, who is challenging Republican Sen. William R. DeSteph Jr. in Virginia Beach.
Internal polling by the House Democratic caucus, as well as by individual campaigns, has shown solid support for Northam around the state, according to several Democrats who have seen the numbers.
Republicans have gleefully publicized what they consider to be tainted donations from “Governor Blackface.”
“They have lost any moral authority to speak on issues of race in the future,” state GOP Chairman Jack Wilson said. “Each Democrat should be asked if they’re a racist or a hypocrite every single day until November.”
Garren Shipley, spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), said Northam is trying to buy his way out of trouble. “The governor is now handing out checks as fast as he can to try to paper this thing over,” he said.
Shipley noted that all the bills signed by Northam were first enacted by Republican majorities. “He’s leaping from one preexisting initiative to the next, looking for positive headlines,” he said.
Shipley offered his own list of Northam’s accomplishments: bailed out on a race conference at Virginia Union University after the student body protested. Bowed out of speaking at the graduation of his alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute. Turned back from a Northern Virginia fundraiser after protesters lined the cul-de-sac where it was taking place. Drew sharp criticism from the Portsmouth NAACP after an investigation failed to shed more light on the racist photo.
“Governor Northam is doing the only thing he can right now — keep going and act like nothing is wrong,” Shipley said. “He’s cloaked in this scandal, and short of resigning, the only thing he can do is just keep pretending, ignoring his surroundings.”
Kidd, the political scientist, said Northam runs a risk by going out on a limb for the special session on guns.
Republicans could use their majority to force through measures that Democrats don’t like, such as beefing up criminal sentences. Then Northam might face wrapping up the high-profile effort with a veto, leaving him empty-handed.
But the degree of public outrage over gun violence, Kidd said, makes the risk worth taking.
“Those Republicans, especially in Virginia Beach, are going to be on the spot to do something. I think they’re going to feel the pressure,” he said.
That would be a measure of how far Northam has come since February, when his political career was written off as a catastrophe. The governor can still be a plus for fellow Democrats if he helps them deliver on policy, said Bagby, the Black Caucus chairman.
Voters in primaries Tuesday and in general elections in November “will focus on the individuals that are on the ballot,” not on Northam, Bagby said. “And they will also focus on issues that will impact them in their communities.”