Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) stepped off the rostrum in the Virginia Senate as members paid tribute to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Jan. 18 in Richmond. (Laura Vozzella/The Washington Post)

A Virginia governor is caught in a whirlwind of controversy that threatens both his ability to govern and his party’s prospects in an upcoming state election.

He issues a public apology, admitting that his actions embarrassed Virginia and promising to work hard to regain the public’s trust and confidence.

Oh, and he has no intention of resigning, despite calls for him to do so.

The governor: Bob McDonnell, a Republican. The time: July 2013. The source of the scandal: accusations of corruption after news broke that McDonnell had accepted expensive gifts and tens of thousands of dollars in loans from would-be impresario Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Almost six years later, another Virginia governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, faces another storm of criticism, including calls for him to resign. Northam’s scandal: a deeply racist — as even Northam admitted — 35-year-old picture from his medical school yearbook.

McDonnell held out, limping to the end of his term as a diminished figure whose only certainty was a federal court date.

That path isn’t open to Northam.

Northam has lost the support of his fellow Democrats, be they in the General Assembly, Congress or among the growing Democratic presidential field.

And yet Northam, as of Saturday morning at least, appears to be trying to find a way to make the McDonnell strategy work, gut this thing out and somehow finish his term in office.

That’s magical political thinking.

With the General Assembly session not yet at its midpoint, and with major issues such as tax reform still to be decided, the ascendant Democrats can’t afford a diminished and isolated governor.

Worse, Northam as governor would be such a political liability that he could not appear with House or Senate candidates on the stump this November. They would not be able to accept whatever money he might raise on their behalf.

Northam has to know this. He also knows that that photograph encapsulates the barely contained hate still lurking in Virginia.

The ironic twist in the Northam story is that it broke on the website Big League Politics, an outlet that has past ties to tarnished GOP candidates Roy Moore and Corey A. Stewart, according to reporting by the Daily Beast.

Stewart, whose U.S. Senate campaign in Virginia was embraced by white nationalists, made no secret of his desire to protect and defend the images and sanitized narrative of Virginia’s Confederate past.

Stewart and his message were just trounced this past November. It seemed common sense had prevailed and perhaps Virginia as a whole could turn the page at last.

Northam’s medical school photograph has upended that notion.

But there is a solution to the Northam problem that may help push the commonwealth back onto its more sensible course: Justin Fairfax must speak out.

Virginia’s African American lieutenant governor is an up-and-coming political force. As successor to Northam, Fairfax would be a powerful voice for a new Virginia way.

He has already shown his mettle on this issue through his quiet, dignified but powerful protests against the state Senate honoring the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Fairfax, a descendant of slaves, could decide Northam is worth forgiving, and that the insensitive lout in that medical school yearbook photograph is not the man who sits in the governor’s chair today.

He could also call for Northam to go, a bow to political reality that no Virginia Democrat, particularly post-Charlottesville, can be seen posing in an ugly racist photograph, no matter how old.

Fairfax will have plenty of cover if he chooses the latter course. No politician on either side of the aisle will publicly cross him for it.

Virginia and the political world may think this will put the issue to rest. And for Fairfax — not only does he become the real power in the state party, he also becomes the clear favorite for its gubernatorial nomination.

However, if he chooses forgiveness, the conversation would be far different. Democrats would likely lose all the political momentum they have gained in the past few years. They might even lose seats in the General Assembly races in November.

As much as someone who knows Northam may want to forgive him, the political reality here cannot be forgiven away.

When Fairfax speaks, it will decide not only Northam’s fate but also whether Virginia is ready, finally, to exorcise its racist past.

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: Ralph Northam must resign. And that’s just a start.

The Post’s View: Ralph Northam’s answers strain credulity

Jennifer Rubin: Northam is done for, and Booker is in

Dana Milbank: Ralph Northam is about to moonwalk out of the governor’s mansion