RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has bowed out of plans to serve as commencement speaker at Virginia Military Institute, his alma mater, and will not participate in any other graduation ceremonies due to lingering controversy over his blackface scandal.
The governor’s spokeswoman confirmed that the state’s top politician will steer clear of graduation ceremonies throughout the commonwealth this commencement season.
Her announcement Monday, first reported by the Roanoke Times, came one day after Northam abruptly backed out of an appearance at a Burke fundraiser for state Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax).
Northam canceled on Marsden because the event had drawn protesters, including the Fairfax chapter of the NAACP, the Republican Party of Virginia and antiabortion activists. Northam's spokeswoman said the governor opted to skip it out of "safety concerns."
Northam all but disappeared from public view after Feb. 1, when a racist photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook. He initially apologized but said the next day that it wasn’t him in the photo. He did admit, however, that he wore blackface to imitate Michael Jackson for a dance contest in that same year.
In recent weeks, Northam had pushed ahead with some limited public events and wrangled some victories out of the General Assembly.
Spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said the governor’s decision to stay away from graduations was not a reversal of that trend. He decided weeks ago to skip those ceremonies “out of concern he would pull focus from the achievements of graduates and their families.”
Northam, a pediatrician and former state senator, had just marked the end of a successful first year in office when the yearbook photo came to light. It showed two people, one in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes.
National and state Democratic leaders swiftly demanded his resignation, but Northam has refused to step down, saying he will devote the remaining three years of his term to racial equity.
John McGlennon, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary, said he thinks it makes sense for Northam to stay away from graduations for now.
“I don’t think it serves his purposes to become the focus of attention,” he said. “Much better for him to come back [in future years] . . . assuming he’s been able to successfully demonstrate that he understands the nature of why people were offended, that we know the full story of what happened all those years ago, and that he’s been able to restore his reputation with the electorate.”
But McGlennon sees the fundraiser episode as a sign that Democrats will not be able to count on his help in this year’s legislative elections, which could prove pivotal. Virginia is one of just four states with elections in 2019 and the only one with a competitive race for control of both houses of the legislature.
Republicans hold two-seat majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate, and all 140 seats are on the ballot in November. While the GOP is trying to hang on to control, Democrats are hoping to flip both chambers.
“Obviously Democrats were hoping the governor was going to be a real asset in legislative elections this year. That’s not going to happen,” McGlennon said. “I think this is an indication of the problems that will occur for candidates that would have him involved. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to work with him, doesn’t mean he can’t continue his rehabilitation. . . . This kind of public party leadership is not something he’s going to be able to do for the next several months.”
Northam’s scandal erupted in concert with two others: Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) admitted to wearing blackface to dress as a rapper as a college freshman; and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) was accused of sexually assaulting two women in the early 2000s. Fairfax has denied the claims, saying the encounters were consensual.
With the entire executive branch in turmoil, some Democrats decided they had been too hasty in calling for Northam’s resignation. As he began appearing at more public events in recent weeks, Democratic delegates and state senators have been at his side, saying they are willing to work with him.
Whether they would campaign with him has been more uncertain.
Republicans have sought to keep the pressure on all three Democratic leaders, making the scandals a centerpiece of their election strategy this year.
Northam’s planned appearance at a fundraiser for Marsden might not have posed any risk to the veteran legislator, who hails from a district where Hillary Clinton took 62 percent of the vote in 2016. He has no primary or general election opponent.
The same might be said for Del. Betsy B. Carr (D-Richmond), who has not faced a Republican opponent since 2009. Northam appeared at a fundraiser for her last week, although it was not publicized and therefore drew no protests. Carr is running unopposed in a district where Clinton took 83 percent of the vote.
“This is somebody who doesn’t have a contest this November,” McGlennon said. “They may have been just trying to test the waters to see if he could become active on the campaign trail. I think they got their answer.”