BUCKINGHAM COUNTY, Va. — The little front porch seemed like a pulpit as the Rev. William Barber II outlined a path to redemption for Virginia’s troubled governor, Ralph Northam.
“What he should do more than resign is he should get the resolve to be serious and take on this project,” Barber said, looking toward the nearby stand of pine trees where Dominion Energy plans to build a major natural gas pipeline pumping station in the middle of a historic African American community. “He could lead the nation. He could lead the South.”
Next to the civil rights leader, another high-profile activist, former vice president Al Gore, nodded in agreement. The pair toured the rural community of Union Hill this week to draw attention to the case against the pumping station, which is part of the $7.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Northam’s shame over a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page could be put to positive use, said Gore, a fellow Democrat. “If it resulted in Governor Northam saying, ‘I’ve seen the light, I’m going to change the policy,’ then God intends it for good,” he said.
That would be a dramatic step for the governor — Dominion is one of his biggest donors and the most powerful corporation in the state.
This is Northam’s place now in the national dialogue about race. As long as he promises to work for racial reconciliation instead of heeding calls to resign, he will face mounting pressure on a number of fronts to put actions behind his words.
He’s off to a rocky start. The governor abandoned plans to start a “reconciliation tour” Thursday at Virginia Union University after the student body president asked him to reschedule. Some on campus felt Northam’s presence would distract from a commemoration of the “Richmond 34,” students arrested in 1960 for trying to desegregate a lunch counter. Instead, Northam invited members of the group to visit him Friday at the Executive Mansion.
Black lawmakers were disappointed last week after Northam retreated on calls for expanding low-income tax relief, questioning whether he’s too wounded to bargain with Republicans. Northam responded by seeking more state money for schools to serve at-risk students, and to prevent evictions of low-income residents.
With the annual General Assembly session in its final week, GOP leaders have signaled willingness to consider the requests. Budget conferees have until Saturday to reach a decision.
The task Northam has set for himself — addressing systemic inequities that deprive African Americans of equal opportunity — is enormous. Environmental advocates say he has a chance to make a splash with the Union Hill project, which won a key state air permit in January despite years of objections from black and environmental leaders.
Northam has declined to take a position on the pipeline or the pumping station, saying he trusts the state permitting process to act in Virginia’s best interest. But he has drawn ire for appearing to interfere in that process, replacing two State Air Pollution Control Board members last year as they were preparing to vote on the Union Hill permit.
Northam’s spokeswoman did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the statements from Barber and Gore. Earlier in the week, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Northam addressed the compressor project in a written statement, defending the permitting process but calling on Dominion to “listen and respond to the concerns of this important historic community.”
With the rest of the 600-mile pipeline hung up on delays and court challenges, opponents say Northam should step in on behalf of the residents of this rural community, which was settled by free blacks and former slaves just after the Civil War.
“It’s a horrible injustice and it should be stopped,” Gore said in an interview.
He and Barber — who heads the Repairers of the Breach activist group and has restarted the national Poor People’s Campaign founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — met with residents at Union Grove Baptist Church on Tuesday night, visited the home near the pumping station site and spoke to a regional audience of some 1,100 cheering people at the local middle school.
While most state and national Democrats have called on Northam to resign, Gore and Barber declined to directly address the question.
Northam initially took responsibility for the yearbook photo, which shows one person in blackface and another in Klan robes, but later said he’s certain it was not him in the picture. He admitted to darkening his face to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest later that same year.
Barber said in an interview that too much public attention has been paid to blackface and other forms of cultural racism.
“Deal with the systemic racism. Voting rights. Economic inequality,” Barber said. “You want to deal with racism — stop getting all excited over cultural things and let’s get down to the real issue about racism.”
He and Gore, who have partnered on several efforts to address issues of environmental justice, said a decision by Northam to oppose the Union Hill pipeline project would be particularly powerful because it would defy Dominion. The utility has donated more than $200,000 to Northam over the years and is a major benefactor of Virginia politicians in both parties.
In an effort to build goodwill, Dominion has pledged more than $5 million to Union Hill residents to build a community center, purchase an ambulance and make other improvements. The offer has sparked divisions, though, with some residents saying it shows good faith and others calling it bribery.
Those divisions illustrate the challenge facing Northam as he pursues something as complicated and nuanced as reconciliation. Barber cautioned that pandering won’t cut it and slammed Dominion’s offer to help Union Hill as part of a systemic problem that needs to be fixed.
At the church, Barber approached former state agriculture secretary Basil Gooden, who grew up nearby, and chastised him for hiring on as a Dominion consultant to work with the community.
“You ought to be ashamed, being black and being on the side of environmental racism,” Barber told him. “Your soul ain’t worth that kind of money.”
Gooden followed Barber out the door, saying he believes the pumping station is inevitable and took the position with Dominion to help the community deal with it. But Barber brushed him off.
Northam’s status with African Americans is a political issue for Democrats, who have been counting on support from black voters in their quest to take back majorities in the House of Delegates and state Senate in elections this fall.
The governor has been meeting with civil rights leaders and African American lawmakers as he formulates his path forward. Barber said he has not yet spoken with Northam but would like to.
If Northam wants support, the civil rights leader said, he needs to do more than promise to listen. Standing high on the front porch of Ella Rose, 75, whose home is adjacent to the 68-acre site for the natural gas pumping station, Barber said Northam needs to pay more attention to residents and less to big donors like Dominion.
“All the stuff that he has said — wanting forgiveness, wanting this, wanting to apologize — is suspect until he faces these kinds of systemic problems,” Barber said.
Gore said Northam could start by addressing the pipeline and the concerns of residents in Union Hill.
If he did, Barber said, “we’d stand right there with him.” He cited the biblical story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who gave half of his possessions to the poor. “[Jesus] said if you really want to show you mean it, restore to the people what you’ve taken from them,” Barber said.
“Pay the debts back,” Gore agreed, and Barber repeated: “Pay the debts back.”