As lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday morning, they renewed calls for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign.
Northam has been silent since a Saturday news conference in which he said he did not take part in a racist yearbook photo from his days in medical school.
Monday morning, the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates called the controversy “a painful and heartbreaking moment for the commonwealth.” Kirk Cox told reporters that “regardless of the veracity of the photo,” the Democratic governor had lost the confidence of the people.
Asked by reporters about the possibility of removing Northam from office, Cox said there is “rightful hesitation.” Constitutional provisions are very specific, according to Cox, and mainly refer to physical or mental incapacitation. He added that impeachment would have to meet “a very high standard.” Cox said he had not been approached by Democratic legislators about any effort to remove Northam.
Cox called the turn of events tragic. “I have worked with the governor,” he said. “We’ve certainly not agreed on everything. I would say that this is just heartbreaking.”
A news conference from the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, originally scheduled for 8 a.m. Monday, was canceled. Protesters calling for Northam’s resignation gathered outside the Capitol around 10 a.m.
After the photo was published online Friday afternoon, Northam apologized both in a written and a video statement. Saturday afternoon, however, the governor denied he was in the 1984 photo, but admitted to wearing blackface at least once in his life, during a Michael Jackson dance contest. “And I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put under my … or on my cheeks,” Northam said, before adding “and the reason I used a very little bit is because I don’t know if anybody’s ever tried that but you cannot get shoe polish off.”
Northam, a veteran and pediatrician, won election in 2017 as part of a broad Democratic wave. The day after he was elected, he told reporters his campaign’s success was a rebuke to divisive politics. “The hatred, the bigotry, the politics that is tearing this country apart that’s not the United States of America that people love,” Northam said then. “It’s certainly not the commonwealth of Virginia.”
While not known as a compelling public speaker, Northam has been widely praised for his ability to get things done in a bipartisan manner. Under his leadership last year, Virginia finally passed Medicaid expansion.
He advocates for what he calls “The Virginia Way,” including the phrase in his State of the Commonwealth address just last month. “The ‘Virginia Way’ charges us to put people ahead of politics, and to leave this place better than we found it.”
But now many say Northam is failing to do just that. He has lost support from Democrats and Republicans, locally and nationally. After Saturday’s news conference, Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner urged him to resign.
And former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, with whom Northam served as lieutenant governor, echoed the call on CNN on Sunday. “If Ralph is watching this today, I know how much he loves this commonwealth of Virginia, and you’ve got to make the right decision. You’ve got to make the right moral decision,” McAuliffe pleaded. “We have to bring people together. We’ve had a horrible history in Virginia.”
McAuliffe says that right moral decision is to resign. That’s an opinion echoed by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, the NAACP, and others.
If Northam steps down, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would step up. Fairfax is a lawyer in Northern Virginia. His ancestors were enslaved and freed in the commonwealth.
Vo Carpenter, a local NAACP leader, says Fairfax becoming governor would be a sort of poetic justice. “Lt. Gov. Fairfax would have the ability to really define his career and really put his stamp on the history of Virginia as we try to transition beyond our old segregated past, where actions like this may have been acceptable in certain parts of Virginia. He’s able to say ‘We’re gonna move past this and really move the state towards reconciliation,'” Carpenter said.
The lieutenant governor hasn’t demanded that Northam resign. But in a statement, Fairfax did say that this defining moment in Virginia history requires “leaders with the ability to unite.”