Political fortunes rarely shift as quickly as did Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s. After a week in which he attracted national attention for remarks on abortion, a photograph emerged Friday from his medical college yearbook, showing a man dressed in blackface standing beside a man in Klan robes. In a statement, Northam (D) admitted that he was in the photo but declined to identify which costume was his.
The furor that resulted was both predictable and fast-burning, leading to an obvious question that no politician ever wants to face in negative circumstances: What comes next?
Here are the possibilities.
This scandal has been bubbling for fewer than 24 hours as of writing, meaning that predicting what path Northam will eventually take is tricky. Northam’s immediate response, offered in the statement cited above, suggests that he doesn’t plan to leave office.
“I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused,” the statement read. “I am ready to do that important work.”
Again, though, it is early, and politicians often shy away from resignation in their initial responses to scandal. If he does resign, the next step is simple: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax becomes governor.
This, in itself, is interesting. Two weeks ago, The Washington Post reported that Fairfax, who is black, stepped away from his duties presiding over the state Senate briefly while the legislative body took a ceremonial action honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“I think it’s very divisive to do what was done there, particularly in light of the history that we’re now commemorating — 400 years since the first enslaved Africans came to the commonwealth of Virginia,” he said, adding, “And to do that in this year in particular was very hurtful to a lot of people.”
Fairfax’s assuming Northam’s position would be interesting, too, because of a loophole in the constitution. Two experts on the state’s governing document who spoke with The Post by email confirmed that if Fairfax were to replace Northam following the latter’s resignation, he would be eligible to run for reelection to the governor’s mansion at the end of Northam’s term — bucking the one-term rule that normally binds the state executive.
“The [state] constitution makes a governor ineligible to ‘the same office’ for the term succeeding that for which he was elected,” wrote A.E. Dick Howard, Warner-Booker distinguished professor of international law at the University of Virginia and executive director of Virginia’s Commission on Constitutional Revision. “A lieutenant governor who has succeeded to the office of Governor was not elected to be Governor in the first instance, so the ban on reelection does not apply to him.”
There’s another way in which Fairfax could enjoy that benefit: if Northam is ousted involuntarily.
The Virginia legislature moves to impeach Northam.
Howard explained that the constitution outlines an impeachment process that looks much the same as the one at the federal level: impeachment charges brought by the lower chamber, in this case the House of Delegates, and a decision on removal by the state Senate.
But John Dinan of Wake Forest University, author of “The Virginia State Constitution,” points out that the constitution “makes clear that impeachment is limited to cases where an official has offended ‘against the Commonwealth by malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crimes or misdemeanor.’ ” Northam’s past behavior seems unlikely to meet such a standard.
At least in the abstract. Asked whether he thought the relative vagueness of that phrase might still pose a threat to Northam, Dinan said he thought it might.
“I would say that ... we do not have a clear standard of what constitutes an impeachable offense,” he wrote, “and that the language of the Virginia impeachment provision is slightly different from the relevant language in the U.S. Constitution but is similar in providing little in the way of clear guidance for defining an impeachable offense.”
That said: “No Governor of Virginia has been removed by impeachment,” Howard noted. “Indeed, impeachment of governors has been rare in other states.”
(Both Dinan and Howard also noted that the constitution allowed for a removal of the governor under circumstances of inability, which, again, seems unlikely.)
Northam remains in office.
The possibility that relies on inertia is, as is usually the case, still quite likely. It’s easy in the blistering aftermath of an emerging scandal to assume that it will inflict more political damage than one might expect. Politicians expected to walk away from their positions in the face of public opprobrium have not infrequently served out their terms — and even been reelected.
There are good reasons to think Northam will similarly be able to ride out his term, including that he’s constitutionally limited to four years anyway.
It’s safe to assume, however, that he’s unlikely to then seek or obtain another political office. It can be much easier to survive a scandal than it is to get another opportunity from the electorate.