Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) addresses reporters in Richmond. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) was set to leave town Friday evening when he started getting texts about a scandal involving Gov. Ralph Northam (D). When he saw the picture of someone in blackface and someone in Ku Klux Klan garb on Northam’s medical school yearbook page, Fairfax said he found it “abhorrent, vile and racist.”

The next 24 hours were a seesaw for the 39-year-old former federal prosecutor from Fairfax County, who for a time thought he was about to ascend to the top elected office in Virginia and began making preparations, including notifying his family.

Instead, the governor who had seemed grim and on the verge of resigning when he spoke with Fairfax on Friday night took a more resolute tone in a phone call Saturday morning.

And after Fairfax watched Northam’s extraordinary news conference Saturday afternoon, in which the governor pledged not to step down, the lieutenant governor struggled to express his own feelings about the situation.

Fairfax, the second African American elected statewide in Virginia and the great-great-great-grandson of a slave, said the governor’s predicament gives him deep concerns — especially in 2019, the 400th anniversary of both the creation of representative government and the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia.

“That’s a crucial intersection in the history of the country and the history of Virginia,” Fairfax said. “And I think it’s at that moment that people want us to elevate and to rise and not to be dragged down into the gutter, not to have the worst elements of society begin to make our politics more toxic.”

He stopped short of calling for Northam to resign, and Northam invoked Fairfax’s name in his afternoon news conference as a partner in moving forward. But when Fairfax was asked whether he believes the governor’s explanations, he hesitated.

“In what respect?” Fairfax said. “I’m a lawyer and a litigator. I just want to be more precise . . . what we’re talking about.”

Pressed again — did he believe the governor? — he answered, “Here’s what I can say: I’ve known Ralph for years. . . . We can generally rely on what each other said to be accurate. . . . I can’t speak to what happened to him 30 years ago in medical school.”

Fairfax described the previous 24 hours as an “eventful” period of wrestling with tough issues.


Fairfax has consulted with Virginia’s attorney general. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

On Friday evening, as the photo spread on social media, Northam called and invited Fairfax to meet with him in the governor’s office on Capitol Square. Initially, the men were alone; staff came in later. Northam apologized for the photo, saying that he had no memory of it but that he took responsibility for it, Fairfax told reporters on Saturday.

“He said at the time, ‘I don’t recall the party or taking that particular photo, but it’s on my page and I’m sorry,’ ” Fairfax said. “He thought it may have depicted him. He didn’t know which of the two individuals may have been him.”

Later that evening, just before 10, the governor called and told Fairfax that he was going to “sleep on” any decision about what to do next. He hadn’t specified resignation, but the lieutenant governor had seen the avalanche of calls for Northam to step down and assumed it was a strong possibility.

Fairfax and his staff huddled Friday evening and Saturday morning, researching the particulars of how he might take the reins.

They drew up a list of people to call and contacted state Attorney General Mark S. Herring (D), who has already announced his intention to run for governor in 2021. “We wanted to be prepared but not presumptuous,” Fairfax said.

Although Fairfax and his staff declined to detail their conversation with Herring, the attorney general announced on Saturday that he had assured Fairfax “that, should he ascend to the governorship, he will have my complete support and commitment to ensuring his success.”

Fairfax called his wife and two young children to prepare them for the possibility of relocating to Richmond. And he prayed, he said, “for wisdom and discernment.”

When Northam phoned Fairfax again on Saturday morning, though, his tone was more assured. “He said he thought it wasn’t him” in the photo, Fairfax said.

The governor did not mention a fact that he would later reveal during the news conference: that he had used shoe polish to darken his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a 1984 dance contest.

“That obviously was disturbing as well,” Fairfax said. “I think blackface is always wrong. Whatever context it takes place in, it’s never okay.”

The controversy now clouds an election year in which Democrats have nurtured hopes of making big gains and securing majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

All 140 seats in the House and Senate are on the ballot this fall, with Republicans narrowly holding each chamber.

“We need the leadership at this critical moment that can unify the party, unify the commonwealth of Virginia . . . help lift us above some of the worst of what we’ve seen,” Fairfax said. “This country is really looking for healing and grace.”