RICHMOND — The state Capitol hit a new level of chaos Monday as Gov. Ralph Northam (D) asked staffers to stand by as he decided his fate, while the man who would succeed him, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), denied a sexual assault allegation that appeared on a conservative website.
Northam gathered Cabinet members and staffers Monday to apologize for the pain caused by a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page and told them he was still weighing options, according to several people who attended.
The governor urged staffers not to quit and promised to decide his fate soon, but how soon was left unsaid, according to three people familiar with what transpired, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to decribe a private meeting. It could take days, according to one person familiar with his thinking.
Northam is trying to assemble evidence to prove that he was not in that racist photo and is exploring whether he has enough support in the government to continue to be effective, according to several people who have spoken with the governor. Feedback from constituents has begun to shift, becoming more positive, one person said.
Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-King George), Northam’s closest friend in the legislature, who has been in contact with the governor throughout the crisis, said Monday night that Northam was not giving up.
“I know people are speculating that Ralph is going to resign and still considering it, but I can tell you he is not going anywhere,” he said. “He’s dug in, and he is going to fight this thing out.”
Elected officials from both parties stood by their calls that Northam must go, but the way forward became cloudier Monday with the incendiary charges against Fairfax. The lieutenant governor vehemently denied the claim that he sexually assaulted a woman in 2004, a report that was posted on the same website that revealed the photo from Northam’s yearbook Friday.
“She was very much into a consensual encounter,” Fairfax said about the 2004 incident. “Everything was 100 percent consensual. And now, years later, we have a totally fabricated story out of the blue to attack me once I was in politics.”
Fairfax, 39, called it an attempt to damage him.
“Does anybody think it’s any coincidence that on the eve of my potentially being elevated, this uncorroborated smear comes up?” he said. “You don’t have to be cynical, you don’t have to understand politics, to understand when someone’s trying to manipulate a process to harm someone’s character without any basis whatsoever.”
He would not say whether he believes that Northam should step down.
“I believe the governor has to make a decision in the best interest of the commonwealth of Virginia,” Fairfax said, adding that he had not spoken with Northam in “a couple of days.”
Swarms of journalists from national news outlets shouted questions at Fairfax in the Capitol rotunda as what had seemed like a death watch for Northam’s political career morphed into a political circus. Amid the clamor, delegates and senators hunkered down at either end of the building on what was already the busiest day of the legislative year, grinding through hundreds of bills before a Tuesday deadline to act.
“We have to stay focused,” said Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), the House minority leader. “We’ve got 350-something bills to move.” That included tuning out the furor over Fairfax. “Really, I haven’t had time to follow that right now, I’m just focused on the floor,” she said.
While Northam was quickly and intensely criticized for the photo, lawmakers were less certain how to react to the Fairfax allegations, which came with no hard evidence.
“I have no comment on the Justin thing. He denies it, so I don’t know what else to think at this moment,” said Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington).
“There were only two people present” at the time of the encounter between Fairfax and his accuser, said Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria). “The lieutenant governor has said that the version of events that has been described is not what occurred.”
Ebbin added that the allegations against Fairfax have not affected his belief that Northam should immediately resign, saying anxiety among Democrats is growing as Northam continues to hold out.
“The longer the governor is in place without the confidence of the legislature, then you can see a lack of stability occurring,” Ebbin said. “It’s important that we have a governor who’s focused on the business of the state and a citizenry that is supportive of our governor.”
Only a week ago, the Democrats had momentum during an election year when all 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot in November and Republicans hold razor-thin majorities in both chambers.
Northam, Fairfax and state Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) have been popular statewide — and Northam, in particular, has been respected by members of both parties. He worked with GOP leadership last year to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low-income residents; has achieved bipartisan agreement for criminal justice reform, permanent funding for Metro and coal-ash cleanup; and landed the biggest economic development coup in recent history: 25,000 jobs tied to Amazon’s HQ2 in Arlington.
On Monday, lawmakers were filling idle time between votes with speculation about various succession scenarios should Northam step down, and if Fairfax faced a similar fate.
There were even rumors that Northam’s office was behind the leak of the Fairfax allegations to try and slow the rush for resignation.
The Collective PAC, which has supported Fairfax and other black candidates around the country, accused “Northam’s team and advisors” of spreading unspecified “lies” about the lieutenant governor. It offered no evidence when making that claim in a tweet Sunday.
Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel dismissed that claim. “There was no involvement from the governor’s team in this allegation surfacing,” Yheskel said.
Fairfax also discounted the charge about Northam.
“I have no indication in that regard,” he said in a second media scrum Monday afternoon.
When someone mentioned another scenario — that Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who is said to aspire to statewide office, had links to someone who brought the woman’s charges to light — Fairfax said, “You’re great reporters, and you’ll get to digging, and you’ll get to make some connections.”
Asked whether Stoney facilitated or encouraged the leak of the sexual assault allegation, his spokesman Jim Nolan said: “This insinuation is 100 percent not true. Period.”
During a brief recess of the House of Delegates, some legislators stepped outside for a breather, trading barbs with staffers or Capitol police.
Del. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax) called the sequence of events that began Friday “like a Hollywood movie.”
“You couldn’t write this,” he said, cheerfully.
Whether or not Northam will step down is still anybody’s guess, he said, adding, “Let’s see how the day ends.”
The crisis actually began last Wednesday when Northam, a pediatric neurologist, defended a Democratic delegate’s late-term-abortion bill. His words in a WTOP radio interview led critics on social media to brand him a “baby killer.” Then, Friday afternoon, the racist photo surfaced.
Despite initially taking responsibility for the photo, which shows one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes, and appears on his personal page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, Northam now says the picture is not of him.
He is surrounded by a close circle of advisers and supporters — including the first lady, Pam Northam — who are encouraging him to clear his name and working to gather information to explain the picture.
Those close to him say Northam, who served as president of the Honor Court during his senior year at VMI, froze up when first confronted with the photo and was stunned by the swift condemnation from across the state and the nation. He felt compelled to apologize by the end of the day Friday, they said.
But that night, he said he didn’t remember dressing that way and became convinced that the image wasn’t of him, these people said. The prospect of resigning in shame over something he is certain he did not do was unpalatable to him — especially in an era when other political figures, such as President Trump, transgress so openly and with no apparent consequence. Even former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) served out his term knowing he was under federal investigation for corruption charges. McDonnell was found guilty but later had his conviction overturned on appeal.
But in his nationally televised press conference on Saturday, Northam admitted darkening his face with shoe polish to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest in 1984 - an episode that many public officials have said disqualifies Northam from holding the governor’s chair.
“Regardless of the veracity of the photograph, the governor’s lost the confidence of the people and cannot effectively govern,” House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said to reporters Monday. He renewed his call for Northam, 59, to step down, but expressed “hesitation” about the possibility that the legislature would try to force him out.
“I think there’s a rightful hesitation about removal from office,” Cox said. “Obviously you have to consider that to some degree you’re overturning an election. I think the constitutional provisions are very specific . . . it really does call for mental or physical incapacitation.… And obviously impeachment, that’s a very high standard.”
Since the photo became public Friday, nearly every political ally in state and national political circles has called on him to step down.
The drumbeat spread to the state’s public universities. The College of William & Mary on Monday announced that Northam would not attend Friday’s inauguration of new president Katherine Rowe, saying in a statement that “the Governor’s presence would fundamentally disrupt the sense of campus unity we aspire to and hope for with this event.”
University of Virginia President James Ryan issued a statement Sunday suggesting that Northam should resign, saying that if a leader’s “trust is lost, for whatever reason, it is exceedingly difficult to continue to lead. It seems we have reached that point.”
Jenna Portnoy and Antonio Olivo contributed to this story.