The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginians are split on governor’s fate amid blackface scandal, poll shows

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)

An earlier version of this story identified Patricia Hollins as a registered Democrat. Virginia does not register by party.

Virginians are deadlocked over whether Gov. Ralph Northam (D) should step down after the emergence of a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page depicting people in blackface and Ku Klux Klan garb, with African Americans saying by a wide margin that he should remain in office despite the offensive image, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll.

The poll, conducted Wednesday through Friday, finds residents split over Northam’s fate, with 47 percent wanting him to step down and 47 percent saying he should stay on. Northam counts higher support among black residents — who say he should remain in office by a margin of 58 percent to 37 percent — than among whites, who are more evenly divided.

On the scandals buffeting the state’s other top elected officials, the poll by The Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University finds that about a third of Virginians think Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) should resign after he admitted wearing blackface at a party when he was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. A 60 percent majority say he should stay in office.

[Read full poll results | How the poll was conducted ]

Most remain undecided about a woman’s allegation that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) sexually assaulted her in 2004, with 65 percent saying they didn’t know enough to judge Fairfax’s denial of the accusation. Respondents were not asked about a second sexual assault accusation against Fairfax by a Maryland woman on Friday, after the poll began.

The Post-Schar School poll also finds that 11 percent of residents have either worn blackface — an activity common in 19th-century minstrel shows, which featured white performers portraying African Americans in demeaning ways — or know someone who has.

The survey offers a snapshot of the competing and sometimes conflicting emotions that grip Virginia one week after the state government was plunged into chaos by the publication of Northam’s yearbook photo on a conservative website.

Va. Gov. Ralph Northam, citing higher ‘calling,’ says he will remain in office

Since then, Richmond has been in a near-constant state of crisis. On Thursday, the scandals spread across party lines, as state Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) acknowledged he was among several editors of the 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook, which contained racist photos and slurs. Norment said he was not responsible for the material.

Nearly three-quarters of Virginians report reading or hearing “a lot” about Northam’s yearbook photo. Among those who paid attention to the story, 55 percent say the photo offended them.

But befitting a state with a complicated 400-year history of racial divisions, Virginians show deep ambivalence over what should happen now.

Their conflicted views point to a substantial gap between the worlds of politics and social media — which have showcased a near-unanimous view among elected officials, advocacy groups and the occasional celebrity that Northam has lost the public trust and must resign — and public opinion.

“The data here are so at odds with what party leaders have led us to believe — that the governor has no support to govern effectively anymore,” Schar School Dean Mark J. Rozell said.

Still, the governor’s image has taken a hit. Northam’s 43 percent approval rating is the lowest of any Virginia governor in a Post poll since 1997, and it contrasts with more positive polling results for Northam last year.

The fallout from a news conference he held on Feb. 2 appears to have been particularly damaging.

At that event, Northam backtracked on his admission just a day earlier to appearing in the photo. The governor said he had realized he was not one of the costumed figures and speculated that the photo had been placed on the page without his knowledge.

He simultaneously admitted that he had put shoe polish on his face to impersonate Michael Jackson during a 1984 dance contest. At one surreal moment during the live national news conference, Northam appeared ready to demonstrate the moonwalk but was dissuaded by his wife, Pam.

More than 7 in 10 Virginians say Northam’s assertion that he did not appear in the photo was not believable after his earlier statement.

“Initially, I could have forgiven him, and I think he could have gotten past it. It was something that was 35 years ago,” said David Hughes, a Newport News sheriff’s deputy. “What really bothered me was the change in story.”

Hughes, who is 54 and African American, said that his career in law enforcement has taught him to look skeptically at reversals of the kind Northam made. “Typically, if a person changes their story, it’s not because they remember more,” he said. “It’s because they’re being deceptive.”

Democrats press Fairfax to resign after second sexual assault allegation

Hughes voted for Northam in the primary and general elections. Now he says the governor should resign.

“I’m torn because I do think he’s a good governor,” he said. “But I think once he changed his story, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see moral leadership there.”

Despite their incredulity at his explanation of the yearbook page, a slim 53 percent majority of Virginians say they accept Northam’s apology for the photo. About 50 percent of residents say he could be an effective governor for the remaining three years of his term, while 46 percent say he could not.

Louise Butler, 76, of Richmond is African American and grew up in the city. In her youth, Richmond was segregated, and Butler said she can still recall an argument she had as a teenager with a white woman over where she was allowed to sit on a bus.

Butler, who attended Northam’s inauguration, said she was shocked and disappointed by the yearbook photo. She said the Klan costume, in particular, brought back memories of the violence and discrimination experienced by African Americans in the South before and during the civil rights movement.

But she said that whatever views Northam held in 1984, she was confident that he was now committed to advancing racial equity. “He’s been a good governor, and he’s been good, as far as I know, to black people,” Butler said.

While Democratic leaders at the state and national levels have called for Northam’s resignation, the governor still commands support among many of his party’s voters, the poll shows. About 57 percent of Democrats say he should remain in office.

Independents split more evenly, with 47 percent saying Northam should resign and 43 percent saying he should not. Republicans say he should step down by a margin of 56 percent to 42 percent.

Within the Democratic Party, Northam has greater support from African Americans than whites. A 57 percent majority of black residents who identify or lean Democratic say he should continue to lead the state, compared with 49 percent of whites who identify or lean Democratic. About 47 percent of African Americans overall say Northam has accomplished a great deal or good amount as governor, compared with 30 percent of whites.

Kevin Shank, a 57-year-old white Republican who runs a woodworking business in Augusta County, said he was not personally offended by the photograph in Northam’s yearbook. He said he had never worn or seen anyone wear blackface, but that based on the revelations of the past week, he surmised it must have been a common occurrence.

“I think they was going to parties, and it was something they did,” Shank said. “Seems like there was a lot of it going on.”

What could happen next in Virginia: A flowchart

The Post-Schar School poll finds that Virginians, by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent, think their leaders have not adequately addressed the state’s history of racial discrimination, which began with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on Virginia soil in 1619. Nearly 8 in 10 black Virginians say state leaders have not done enough.

Patricia Hollins, a 48-year-old paralegal from Fredericksburg, said ugliness from the state’s past sometimes surfaces today. Originally from Cleveland, Hollins said she has been surprised by the views expressed in Southern cities she had lived in over the years as her husband served in the U.S. Coast Guard.

More recently, she said, she was surprised to hear neighbors defend a Confederate flag that flies over part of Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia. “It makes you think,” Hollins said. “Have we really gotten past all that? And we haven’t, and we have a long way to go.”

Hollins, who is white and considers herself a swing voter. She supported Republican Ed Gillespie in the 2017 gubernatorial election. She said Northam, Fairfax and Herring should all step down.

“It’s a disgrace to the state,” she said. “And now all the other leaders of all the other states and governments are looking at Virginia and saying, ‘What is going on over there?’ ”

The Post-Schar School poll was conducted by telephone last week among a random sample of 706 Virginia adults, including 62 percent reached on cellphones and 38 percent on landlines. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points; the error margin is plus or minus 10 points among the sample of 132 African American residents and 5.5 points among the sample of 459 white residents.

How Virginia’s top three Democrats dug themselves deeper holes

‘This isn’t me’: Northam’s defiance caught advisers off guard

Virginia, the birthplace of American slavery, cannot escape its legacy

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Emily Guskin contributed to this report.