CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, in his effort to rebuild goodwill after admitting last month to wearing blackface as a young man, took two actions Tuesday related to motorists with “race inequities” in mind.
In Charlottesville, the site of the violent rally by white supremacists in 2017, Northam (D) announced that he had amended the state budget to end license suspensions for unpaid court costs — a practice that disproportionately affects the poor.
And in Alexandria, Northam announced another amendment to ban handheld cellphone use while driving — with a requirement that the state track citations to ensure that minorities are not unfairly targeted for enforcement.
Northam, who resisted calls to step down after a racist image from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced in February, has pledged to focus the remaining three years of his term on addressing racial inequities.
“There’s a level of awareness regarding race inequities in Virginia that we have never seen — that I have never seen in my lifetime,” he told reporters in Alexandria. “I am going to do everything . . . to really bring some good from the events that happened six weeks ago . . . Actions speak louder than words, and now is our opportunity over the next three years to really take action.”
The amendments unveiled Tuesday will not take effect unless they win approval from the General Assembly, which reconvenes April 3 for its annual veto session.
A number of Democratic legislators were at Northam’s side at both events, perhaps signaling that they will not shy away from appearances with the governor as had been widely expected — even in an election year when all 100 seats in the House of Delegates and all 40 in the Senate will be on the ballot.
Seven Democratic legislators were with him in Alexandria, four in Charlottesville, including three members of the Legislative Black Caucus. Two of those are often mentioned as potential gubernatorial contenders in 2021: Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) and Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William).
Northam has been trying to push ahead with the work of governing and mending fences since the yearbook photo showing a hooded Klansman and someone in blackface emerged Feb. 1, kicking off a head-spinning series of scandals that within a week swept up the state’s entire executive branch.
Northam initially took responsibility for the photo but reversed course the next day, saying that he was not in the picture. At the same time, he acknowledged that he had put shoe polish on his cheeks that same year to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who initially called for Northam’s resignation, admitted days later to wearing blackface as part of a rapper costume when he was 19. And two women came forward to accuse Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) of sexual assault — accusations he has denied.
Before any of that erupted, Northam had asked two Democrats to carry bills to end license suspensions for nonpayment of court costs and fines — a practice that can cost people their jobs or tempt them to drive without a license, risking criminal charges. He also included $9 million in his proposed budget to cover revenue that the state normally collects from reinstatement fees. The bills failed in committee, but the money remained in the budget.
The budget amendment that Northam announced adds language to ban suspensions for non-driving-related offenses. If adopted, the amendment also would restore driving privileges for the more than 627,000 Virginians whose licenses are currently suspended solely for nonpayment of fines.
“When a person’s driver’s license is suspended, they may face a difficult dilemma — obey the suspension and potentially lose their ability to provide for their families, or drive anyway and face further punishment, and even imprisonment, for driving while suspended,” said Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security. “This not only further entangles someone in our criminal justice system, but it also places a greater burden on law enforcement and our criminal justice system to enforce and prosecute these offenses.”
In Alexandria, Northam urged lawmakers to pass a total ban on holding a cellphone while driving. Legislation to that effect was watered down in the last days of the legislative session, partly because of concerns raised by Black Caucus members that police would use the law to unfairly target minorities.
The bill that arrived on the governor’s desk would prohibit drivers from using handheld cellphones only in highway work zones. Northam’s proposed changes would ban their use on any Virginia road. But in a nod to the concerns of the Black Caucus, his amendments also direct the state to annually report demographic data related to those citations.
“A distracted driver puts everyone on the road at risk — that’s why it’s so important we come around to a fix for this important issue,” Del. Jeffrey M. Bourne (D-Richmond), a Black Caucus member, said in a release issued by the governor’s office. “The governor’s amendments address concerns about disparate enforcement against drivers of color and will help ensure this measure is being enforced appropriately across the state.”