Called Virginians for Reconciliation, the group officially launched in January at a media event attended by McDonnell and Northam as well as several black legislators, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and the Republican speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates, Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights).
Among its “honorary advisors” are Republican Ed Gillespie, whom Northam beat in the 2017 governor’s race, and Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP and failed Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
McDonnell invited Northam to the group’s first meeting this week in Richmond, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. But reaction among some Democrats to the idea of Northam teaming up with McDonnell was swift.
“Glad they didn’t call me,” tweeted Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), the head of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. Above a photo of Northam and McDonnell side-by-side at the event, Bagby added dismissively: “miss me with the self preservation/privilege.”
Turning to McDonnell “might just be a new low for Northam,” the left-leaning website Blue Virginia wrote. Del. Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones (D-Norfolk), a member of the Black Caucus, called on Northam for action instead of talk about racism; Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) agreed, and added in a tweet: “As to McDonnell where was his loud denunciations of the Neo-Confederate GOP who just ran statewide?”
He was referring to Republican Corey Stewart, who embraced Confederate iconography in his failed challenge last year to Sen. Tim Kaine (D).
McDonnell could not immediately be reached for comment.
Paul Hedges, a spokesman for McDonnell, acknowledged via email that “there are many groups that have been doing great work on matters of race for years, including the [Virginia] Legislative Black Caucus.” The new group aims to “encourage truth-telling, racial equity and reconciliation. . . . We appreciate the opportunity to work with peacemakers in the Commonwealth who foster the goals of greater respect, justice and following the Golden Rule,” he wrote.
Announcing the group on Jan. 16 at the state capitol, McDonnell said it was aimed at furthering Virginia’s observation of the 400th anniversary of Africans landing in chains at the English colony in 1619.
A little more than two weeks after McDonnell launched his group, a right-wing website published a photo from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page that showed one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam initially took responsibility for the picture, but a day later said he was not in it — though he admitted darkening his face to imitate Michael Jackson for a dance contest that same year.
Northam has defied widespread calls from fellow Democrats for him to resign, and instead said he would focus the remaining three years of his term on understanding and combating racial inequity.
He has seldom ventured to public events in the past five weeks, but has held private meetings to talk about issues of race. Northam has met with members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; traveled to Hampton to talk with Hampton University President William Harvey along with former governor L. Douglas Wilder; hosted a breakfast with members of the Richmond 34 civil rights group; and visited the farm of John Boyd, founder of the National Black Farmers Association.
Last Sunday, Northam attended a black church in Petersburg with state Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance (D) and Mayor Samuel Parham. On Monday, Northam will meet with Norfolk State University historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander and others from that historically black institution, according to the governor’s office.
Some of Northam’s efforts have fallen flat — or worse — suggesting the challenges he faces as he struggles to rebuild his reputation. His offer to attend a black history event at Virginia Union University provoked the student body president to ask him to stay away, which Northam did.
First lady Pam Northam drew controversy when she took a group of schoolkids on a tour of the Executive Mansion that highlighted the contributions of enslaved workers. After she handed raw cotton to the group and asked them to imagine the hardships of slavery, one African American girl complained to her mother, who then wrote to lawmakers and accused Northam of being insensitive.
Northam’s visit with about 20 members of McDonnell’s group on Thursday in Richmond — which was not open to the public — lasted an hour and a half, according to Northam’s spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel. The governor made brief remarks, acknowledging the events of the previous weeks and pledging “his commitment to working on racial equity,” Yheskel said.
Despite some of the negative reaction on social media, Yheskel said Northam appreciated the invitation from McDonnell. “But he does not see the group as the only vehicle for having conversations about race,” she said. “He wants to engage a variety of folks on the issue.”