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Virginia Gov. Northam, isolated, gets space to ponder his fate as Democrats absorb scandals

A cascade of scandals rocked the Democratic Party in Virginia in 2019 after a racist photo was discovered on Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page. (Video: Lee Powell, Patrick Martin, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) appeared to be in a stronger position Thursday as the scandals engulfing the state’s other two top officeholders made it less likely he would be forced to step down during the General Assembly session.

Most Democrats in Virginia’s congressional delegation stood by their call for him to resign over a racist photo in a 1984 yearbook and his use of blackface that same year, but some privately acknowledged that the reckoning might have to wait. They took a softer stand toward Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), refraining from calling for his resignation over a blackface incident from his college days.

Va. Attorney General Herring appeared in blackface in college

The delegation could not agree on what to say about Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), who denies allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman in 2004.

Residents in Richmond shared their thoughts on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) days after a racist photo in his medical school yearbook page surfaced. (Video: Amber Ferguson, Dalton Bennett, Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

In Richmond, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus echoed those positions late Thursday after long behind-the-scenes deliberations. The lawmakers renewed their call for Northam to resign, an action that emphasized how isolated he continues to be over the photo depicting someone in blackface and someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. Northam was 25 at the time.

“This isn’t me”: Northam changes story about racist photo in yearbook

But the black caucus, an influential group within Democratic circles, stopped short of calling for Herring’s ouster over his admission Wednesday that he darkened his face to imitate a rapper during a college party in 1980 when he was 19.

“While we appreciate the candor of Attorney General Herring’s disclosure, we await further action on his part to reassure the citizens of the Commonwealth of his fitness for leadership,” the caucus said in a statement.

On Fairfax, the caucus said the “troubling allegations” that he sexually assaulted a woman in Boston during the 2004 Democratic National Convention should be investigated.

“Everybody is still grappling with the allegation and trying to — we all believe it should be taken seriously, but I don’t think you’ll see us reach a conclusion about that,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who added that the lawmakers would monitor events. “We’re going to watch it over the next couple of days.”

The expanding political crisis in Virginia has left Democratic leaders stymied, deeply worried about long-term damage to the reputation of the state and the party but frozen by uncertainty about what fresh disclosures might come next.

Party leaders have urged elected Democrats to stay off television, say as little as possible publicly and wait to try to regroup until the situation becomes clearer.

“We’re just trying to get some breathing room,” a senior Virginia Democrat said Thursday.

After meeting in his Capitol Hill office Thursday with most of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation, Kaine said they are withholding judgment on Herring, who is trying firm up support from Virginia’s black leaders.

While they continue to call publicly for Northam to resign, most Democrats now want the governor to stay in office at least until there is clarity on the issues involving Fairfax and Herring.

Because the line of succession goes from the governor to lieutenant governor to attorney general, keeping Herring in office is a backstop against handing the Executive Mansion to the third in line, the House Speaker, who is a Republican.

What is more, if Herring leaves office while the General Assembly is in session, the Republican-controlled legislature will choose his replacement.

Kaine, a former Virginia governor, said the state’s Democratic lawmakers in Congress felt Herring had been sincere in his apologies in a way that Northam had not, but the attorney general still “needs to answer questions of the press and the public, too.”

Some Democrats discussed whether it would be possible to conduct an investigation of the Fairfax allegations, as happened during the Supreme Court confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. But it is unclear what the mechanism for doing that would be.

Meanwhile, Democrats have launched an effort to try to find and expose past misconduct by Republicans, according to two people familiar with the effort. On Thursday, for the first time, unflattering revelations spread to a powerful Virginia Republican.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) acknowledged that he was managing editor of the VMI yearbook in 1968 when it featured several photos of people in blackface and included a number of racial slurs, including one use of the n-word.

Norment released a statement disavowing any responsibility for the offensive content, which was first reported by the Virginian-Pilot.

“The use of blackface is abhorrent in our society and I emphatically condemn it,” Norment said in the statement. “As one of seven working on a 359-page yearbook, I cannot endorse or associate myself with every photo, entry, or word on each page. However, I am not in any of the photos referenced on pages 82 or 122, nor did I take any of the photos in question.”

Crisis management 101: How Virginia’s top three Dems dug themselves deeper holes

Norment also noted that he supported the racial integration of VMI and said he later led the effort to admit women.

One consequence of the drumbeat of scandals is that it has taken the heat off Northam to resign immediately. He has spent the past few days reaching out to minority leaders, reading and contemplating his future, according to a person close to the governor who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

Northam got a briefing on the budget Thursday and also made contact with Fairfax and Herring to express concern for their families and well-being. First lady Pam Northam sent text messages of support to the wives of Herring and Fairfax.

And Northam continues to try to prove that he did not appear in the yearbook photo. He has retained a private investigator, as well as IR+Media, an African American-owned crisis management firm based in the District.

And while whispers spread around the capitol in Richmond that still more figures could face embarrassing revelations, lawmakers focused Thursday on the daily grind of legislation.

But Democrats have little as a game plan for the coming weeks. “We’re just trying to stop the bleeding,” a senior Democrat said.

Party leaders fear the turmoil could blunt or reverse what has been a steady rise in Democratic power. Until the past week, the prospects looked good for Democrats to win control of both state chambers in November, when all seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot. That could now be at risk.

Equally worrisome to veteran Democratic leaders is the potential damage to the state and its reputation. One Democrat worried that if this crisis continues without a swift resolution, businesses may balk at investing in Virginia.

That could yet be a triggering moment for party officials — from Sens. Mark R. Warner and Kaine, to Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott and former governor Terry McAuliffe — to move the resolve the crisis, possibly by putting additional pressure on Northam and Fairfax to step aside. But as of Thursday, that did not appear to be imminent.

Northam administration officials have been working over the past few days to keep the machinery of government running and to reassure outsiders that all is under control.

Aubrey L. Layne Jr., Northman’s secretary of finance, said he has been serving as a go-between for the governor in negotiations over the state budget and tax legislation with each party in both chambers.

He also worked to alleviate the concerns of rating agencies about state bonds, assuring them that the budget process is continuing on schedule and that there is not likely to be long-term instability in the executive branch. By Thursday, Layne said, he had spoken to representatives of Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings, and planned to talk to Standard & Poor’s on Friday.

“The political uncertainty, in the short term, is not a concern to them,” Layne said. “If it should go on over a longer term, then it would be a concern.”

The Virginia business community is deeply concerned about the damage that the scandals are causing to the state’s image, but there are no signs it is pressing Northam to resign at this point. That is partly because corporate leaders want to steer clear of the controversy as much as possible, and partly because the story is changing so quickly that it is difficult to stay abreast of the latest developments, Virginia business executives said.

But they added that they could seek Northam’s departure if it became evident that he could no longer govern effectively.

Business leaders viewed the controversy as a major setback for their long-standing efforts to promote an image of Virginia as a tolerant state because of the importance of being able to attract a diverse workforce.

The Greater Washington Board of Trade, traditionally the region’s premier business group, issued a statement that stopped short of urging Northam to resign but made clear its unhappiness.

“As a nonpartisan organization, we don’t call for the election or removal of individual politicians, but we will state the obvious: Any government official in the region or across the nation must be able to represent our diverse citizenry and govern effectively,” Board of Trade President and CEO Jack McDougle said in the statement. “Our region is evolving rapidly and, more than ever, we need strong leadership that unites us.”

Antonio Olivo, Amy Gardner, Fenit Nirappil, Jenna Portnoy, Mike DeBonis and Robert McCartney contributed to this report.

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