You may have missed it, but Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is trying to make a comeback.
Or at least his veto pen is.
And it’s that pen, plus some of the other powers in the governor’s bag of institutional tricks, that may restore a modicum of political relevance to the man whose prospects seemed deader than Jacob Marley just six weeks ago — if his political ambitions don’t undermine the whole effort.
In the past few days, Northam has vetoed legislation on guns, climate change and immigration. These were Republican brochure bills, intended to make statements rather than policy — particularly the two measures that would have banned so-called sanctuary cities.
The bills were all approved on party-line votes, meaning that unless elected Democrats are utterly determined to spite Northam and vote with Republicans to override, the vetoes will stand.
Republicans get a few talking points, and their base voters will likely respond with the appropriate outrage.
Democrats get to show voters how important it is for voters to give them control of the House and Senate in November. Put them in charge, and all those blinkered Republican bills will never make it out of committee.
And Northam? He gets to show that even a politically isolated governor still has substantial institutional power.
It’s not just the veto. Northam can amend any number of bills on his desk and send them back for consideration. He can also do what he’s never stopped doing during his time in relative exile: making administration appointments.
Speaking of which: Patronage and political ties appear to have helped Northam on the yearbook front.
As the Virginian-Pilot’s Elisha Sauers reported, an advisory board at Northam’s alma mater, Eastern Virginia Medical School, said it will not investigate the infamous photo, opting instead to “focus on assessing the campus’ current culture and providing recommendations for the school.” An outside law firm, McGuire Woods, is investigating the photo on behalf of the medical school.
Which is made all the more interesting when we read this: The revised mission came to light as a Virginian-Pilot analysis found several board members have ties to the governor, some having given thousands of dollars to Northam’s political campaigns and holding administration appointments.
Harry Byrd’s ghost must be enjoying that one.
But these are Northam’s constitutional powers — the ones he never lost, even when (almost) every member of Virginia’s political class had urged him to leave.
It’s his unofficial powers as head of the party, chief fundraiser and ultimate organizer where Northam’s comeback hopes remain full of doubt and danger.
His political action committee, the Way Forward, hasn’t received any contributions of $10,000 or more since early January — before the beginning of the General Assembly session.
It might start raising money soon to support this year’s crop of candidates. But the PAC may have stirred up trouble for Northam in the Richmond suburbs.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Patrick Wilson reported Northam’s PAC has been playing favorites among Democratic candidates seeking to challenge 12th District Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R):
The Way Ahead, encouraged [Democratic Del. Debra] Rodman to run. The PAC asked the Democratic Party of Virginia to pay for a poll of the 12th District. The results -- shared with Rodman but not [Veena] Lothe and [Marques] Jones -- showed Rodman would have a better chance of winning.
Mr. Northam could ask his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, for insight on the perils of meddling in state Senate primaries. Or, if the two aren’t on speaking terms, he could ask the master of primary meddling, former governor Jim Gilmore.
They might be able to explain that vetoing brochure bills and handing out patronage appointments is a reasonable way to rebuild a bit of partisan respect, if not political capital.
But stirring the primary field pot? That’s an excellent way to cement your isolation.