correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly reported that Ralph Northam was the first graduate of the Virginia Military Institute to be elected governor. This has been updated.
RICHMOND — On the Friday night that Gov. Ralph Northam’s political career blew up, two members of Richmond’s business elite got into a car and headed to the Executive Mansion.
Gil Minor, a local corporate titan and major donor to both political parties, and Tom Slater, a prominent lawyer, wanted to see the governor face-to-face as they absorbed the shocking news that a racist photo had been unearthed from his 1984 medical school yearbook page.
They could not get to Northam (D) that night but sat in his office the following Monday to deliver a message: Hang in there. Minor and Slater are part of a donor class in Richmond that has rallied behind the embattled governor.
But perhaps more significant, they are part of a Virginia Military Institute brotherhood, an elite alumni corps that includes several of the state’s power brokers. They did not want Northam, the first VMI graduate to become governor in nearly a century, to go down in disgrace.
That support is a major reason that Northam has clung to office when most of the political world has called for his head, leaving Richmond locked in a limbo of dysfunction that shows no sign of changing soon.
Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) are crippled by racist incidents from their pasts, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) is denying allegations of sexual assault from two women, but an array of factors — including quirks in the state’s constitution — keep all three firmly in office.
The result is a capital functioning in a fog, a tradition-bound place where many of the usual practices are on hold. The lobbyist receptions that lubricate the yearly meetings of the General Assembly lurch on without representatives from the executive branch. Receptions have been canceled — legislative aides did not get their usual night at the Executive Mansion, and both sides passed on the governor’s traditional Black History Month gathering with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
The state’s public universities always put on a big show during the General Assembly, but this year, the College of William & Mary disinvited the governor from Charter Day celebrations, and Northam did not show up for the VMI reception. On Friday, Northam appointed University of Virginia President James Ryan to a state board, which is awkward, because Ryan has called on Northam to resign.
Members of the governor’s cabinet have been scarce at legislative committee meetings, and some Democrats say they are hesitant to tell Republican colleagues that a particular bill is backed by the administration.
“There’s nothing normal about this environment,” Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax) said. “Clearly, this year is unlike any other sessions I’ve been here for.”
There is no precedent for handling a situation like this, and political and procedural forces are propping up the status quo.
Because Virginia’s constitution prohibits a governor from seeking a second consecutive term, Northam has no need to worry about what voters think.
Also helpful to him is that the state’s legislature sits part time. Lawmakers will leave Richmond after Feb. 23, easing some of the pressure and focus on the executive branch.
The state also has no clear mechanism for conducting hearings or an investigation into the allegations against Fairfax — other than impeachment, which has not occurred in at least 150 years and which legislators have so far resisted. Herring, who admitted to his own instance of wearing blackface as a college student in 1980, has been out of public view for two weeks, with the public’s focus mostly on Northam and Fairfax.
There are huge political stakes for Democrats. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot this fall; Republicans hold a majority in each chamber, but until now, Democrats had momentum and were expecting to make big gains. Complicating matters is a redrawing of 26 House districts as part of a federal court order aimed at correcting racial gerrymandering. The new map seems to favor Democrats, but it has increased uncertainty in an already confusing year.
The big question for Democrats will be fundraising. Some Republicans say they have heard from donors who have vowed not to give to Northam or his political action committee.
Lawmakers are prohibited from conducting fundraising during the General Assembly session, but they keep in contact with donors who are also constituents. Del. Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr. (D-Fairfax), the campaign chair for House Democrats, said that he has received many emails expressing concern about the chaos but that potential donors seem undeterred.
“Longtime partners we talk to all the time are committed to helping us . . . win back the majority this fall,” he said.
For lobbyists and business interests, the worst part has been the uncertainty created by the flow of scandals.
“There’s no coherent strategy. . . . It’s just sort of people observing chaos and not knowing what to do next,” said one Republican lobbyist who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid causing difficulties for their clients. “It feels to me like bumper cars. People aren’t driving down the highway; they’re just running into each other.”
Businesses hate uncertainty, particularly in industries that are heavily regulated. In the current climate, in which it has seemed that any or all of the state’s three top leaders could resign, the first impulse has been to cling to the familiar.
Several lobbyists said their clients are uneasy about the potential of Northam’s resigning, in part because Fairfax, the next in line, has no track record. He had never held public office until winning the lieutenant governorship in 2017, and that job calls for little more than presiding over the state Senate. Fairfax and Herring also have taken more overtly progressive stands on some business issues. For example, both have challenged aspects of the two big natural gas pipeline projects being built across the state, one of which is being undertaken by the state’s largest utility and a political powerhouse, Dominion Energy.
Even a politically wounded Northam is a far more comforting figure to Dominion and other business interests.
“There’s been some concern about the appearance of all this, but I haven’t heard anybody say he’s gotta go,” said a Democratic lobbyist. Businesses generally like Northam’s cabinet officials, such as Finance Secretary Aubrey L. Layne, who has worked closely with Republican leaders in the General Assembly on tax and budget issues.
One big question in Richmond concerns the position of Dominion and its chief executive, Tom Farrell. A company official would not discuss any role Farrell might have played behind the scenes. Even advisers in Northam’s inner circle said they have not been aware of — or at least privy to — any interaction between Farrell and the governor.
In the first few days after the racist photo surfaced on Feb. 1, Northam was largely sequestered with his wife, Pam, and a tight circle of longtime friends and advisers. Northam initially apologized for the yearbook photo — which depicts a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe — but the next day, at the urging of former classmates at Eastern Virginia Medical School, he said he was not in the picture.
Still, he acknowledged that he wore blackface that same year, 1984, while dressing as Michael Jackson for a dance contest, setting off new calls for his resignation.
African American lawmakers, in particular, have expressed a deep sense of betrayal at the revelations about Northam, whom many had actively worked to get elected. Northam has promised to focus on racial reconciliation for the remainder of his term.
When the VMI brotherhood and Richmond business establishment stepped in, they acknowledged the seriousness of the racist incidents but counseled against the rush to condemn Northam. G. Gilmer “Gil” Minor III, 78, is chairman emeritus of Owens & Minor, a medical supply company co-founded by his great-grandfather in 1882. He said he got to know Northam around 2007, when Northam first came to Richmond as a state senator from southeastern Virginia.
Minor has personally donated more than $2 million to Virginia candidates in recent years, giving equally to Republicans and Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. He gave more than $110,000 to Northam’s campaign for governor in 2017.
Minor said he was drawn to Northam as a fellow VMI alumnus but came to regard him highly as a person and thinks he has been a good governor. The yearbook photo is a serious issue and needs to be investigated, Minor said. EVMS has commissioned another Richmond blue blood, former federal prosecutor and McGuireWoods senior law partner Richard Cullen, to conduct an inquiry into the photograph.
In the meantime, Minor said, Northam deserves support and the benefit of the doubt. He and Slater were among the first outsiders to meet with the governor after the scandal broke, when Northam was still pondering whether to resign.
“I thought he needed to clear his name and suggested that he hang on . . . until something came out to validate it one way or the other. That his responsibility was to the commonwealth,” Minor said.
Slater, 74, who is chairman emeritus of the litigation practice of Hunton Andrews Kurth, a top Richmond law firm, said he also urged Northam to slow things down.
“The rush to judgment really upset us,” Slater said. He has given about $70,000 to Democrats in statewide races in recent years and about $38,000 to Republicans, according to VPAP.
Though he has supported the state’s Democratic U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, Slater said he was disappointed that both were quick to condemn Northam. “His life’s work really ought to count for something, and it seemed like people were ignoring that,” Slater said.
Slater, Minor and other leaders of Richmond’s financial and legal community have signed onto a letter of support for Northam, a direct signal that the governor has substantial backing to ride out his uncomfortable situation for some time.
“We asked him . . . if he needed us or if he wanted us to be there, fine, call us,” Minor said. “He hasn’t called us, and that hasn’t diminished our support for him at all. From what I can sense, he’s getting stronger every day.”