RICHMOND — On Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam — the Democrat clinging to his job after revelations about a racist yearbook photo and his use of blackface — gets a chance to demonstrate that he has learned from the two-week-old scandal.
He will meet with state lawmakers about the budget, a routine meeting in a normal year. But this is no normal year. Every lawmaker around the table will have called on Northam to resign — if not directly, at least through their party caucuses.
The weakened governor will try to persuade them to make changes to the budget aimed at fixing aspects of the systemic racism that he now says he wants to eradicate.
The steps are small, but they’re the first hint of how state Democrats might move forward under the shadow of three flawed party leaders who, at least for now, don’t appear to be going anywhere.
Northam is trying to win back the African American and female voters who have been the engine behind Democrats’ string of electoral successes in recent years — a relationship that Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark R. Herring have all severely tested.
Herring, like Northam, has admitted to wearing blackface in an incident as a young man. Fairfax has denied two sexual assault allegations. The scandals have disrupted the high hopes Democrats once had for winning control of the Virginia legislature in elections this fall and cast a cloud over the party’s national candidates, who need a fired-up base of women and minorities to challenge President Trump in 2020.
Party leaders have publicly pleaded with Northam and Fairfax to resign as the best way to clear the slate. But both have vowed to stay. While Fairfax calls for an investigation — and legislators ponder whether impeachment would be the mechanism for doing that — Northam says he will reeducate himself about race and embark on a reconciliation tour.
That’s not enough for members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. If they’re going to give Northam space to rebuild — and many say their feelings are still raw — the governor needs to show what he’s learned through actions.
On Thursday, Northam will urge lawmakers to put money back into programs for at-risk students and to prevent evictions of low-income residents. That amounts to just a few tens of millions in a $117 billion biennial budget. But it’s a start. Next week, Northam plans to speak about race at Virginia Union University — the oldest historically black college in the state.
If he can build up enough policy wins, he might be able to turn his downfall into a redemption story and regain some kind of stature.
But state party officials are planning to go into the fall campaigns without him as an active presence on the trail. They expect fundraising to be a problem. In 2015, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe funneled nearly $3.7 million to Democrats around the state through his PAC, Common Good VA.
State Democrats say they expect Northam to be unable to do the same this year, when all 140 seats in the legislature are up for election.
Coordination is also going to be a problem, as candidates all over the state usually rely on top officeholders to help with the logistics of campaigning. Party officials say there’s no sign of lingering animosity between Northam and the Democratic machine over the calls for resignation but that they can’t count on the governor being healed enough by then to provide the usual support.
That’s a major setback. One of Virginia Democrats’ biggest strengths over the past few years has been cohesion. In 2017, when Northam was running for governor, the man he beat in a tough primary — Tom Perriello — threw his full weight into helping the Democrats win. Contrast that with the Republican side, where failed candidate Corey Stewart actively worked against party nominee Ed Gillespie.
Despite all that, state Democrats still seem upbeat about their chances, for one reason: Donald Trump is still president.
“Trump is the number one motivator” for Democrats to get out and vote, one state party official said. Trump has high disapproval ratings in Virginia, which has led to huge turnout for Democrats in the past two election cycles.
Republicans, meanwhile, have been watching the executive branch meltdown play out with a mixture of horror and glee. Horror because many actually like Northam — who flirted with becoming a Republican when he served in the state Senate — and because they worry that the state’s reputation and ability to lure business will suffer from the bad publicity.
But they can’t help appreciating that the crisis turbocharges the narrative they were already trying to build for this fall: that GOP leadership has been stable, sober and good for the state’s economy.
State House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) has kept a relatively low profile throughout the crises. He has called for all three leaders to resign — and if they did so all at once, Cox would be next in line to be governor. But Cox has avoided milking the situation and kept his comments to emailed statements.
Until Wednesday, that is, when Cox told reporters that he would be open to the possibility of considering impeachment proceedings against Fairfax.
That’s a nightmare scenario for Democrats: impeaching only the second African American elected to statewide office while two white men who admitted to blackface incidents remain in power. When Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington) announced on Friday that he planned to introduce an impeachment measure, other Democrats — particularly from the black caucus — angrily pushed back in a conference call Sunday night.
Hope dropped the effort this week but said he would keep the impeachment materials handy.
African American lawmakers have agonized over the unfolding scandals. They’ve called on Northam and Fairfax to resign, and told Herring they’ll withhold judgment until they see how he works to overcome his incident. Many black caucus members are openly skeptical of Northam’s pledge to reeducate; they want to see action.
Early next month, the state Democratic Party will hold its quarterly meeting in Richmond. Northam spoke at the last such meeting, but there’s no word yet whether he’ll venture to this one. It’s safe to say, though, that the damage he has inflicted will be high on the agenda.