Ralph Northam still has the lawful power to exercise his constitutional duties as governor of Virginia. Over the last week, however, he has forsaken whatever moral or democratic authority he once had to wield those powers. The revelation of a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page -- one man in blackface, the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe -- as well as a racist nickname in his military institute yearbook have called into question whether he could still lead a state where white supremacists have been fomenting violence. His stubborn insistence on clinging to power only confirmed that he should not.
Just about everyone now wants Northam, a Democrat, to resign over the scandal. The state Democratic and Republican parties, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and the Democratic National Committee all called on him to step down. So have the biggest names in Democratic state politics, ranging from Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner to former Govs. Terry McAuliffe and Douglas Wilder. The party’s national figures, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and most of the burgeoning slate of 2020 contenders, have also urged Northam to resign.
It seems the only political figure who doesn’t want Ralph Northam to resign is Ralph Northam. The governor has reportedly demurred on the prospect even after a group of African American aides told him that it was the only way to repair the damage. The Washington Post reported on Feb. 4 that Northam, who took office just over a year ago, is still weighing the possibility of resignation as he considers his next moves.
This level of shamelessness isn’t without precedent in American politics today. In the closing weeks of the 2016 election, Donald Trump resisted calls to step aside as the Republican nominee after a recording of him describing sexual assault. He now sits in the Oval Office. Northam appears to be following a similar playbook by clinging to power even though he’s lost whatever mandate he once had to lead Virginia, secure in the knowledge that he can’t be prematurely removed from office over a 35-year-old photo. His lack of civic virtue is no less disqualifying than the scandal itself.
Only part of the controversy surrounding Northam stems from the revelations themselves. Northam first issued a statement on Friday night admitting that he was one of the two men in the photo, though he did not specify which one. “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine and in public service,” he wrote. “But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.” Northam also implicitly ruled out the possibility that he would step down. “I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused,” he added. “I am ready to do that important work.”
His response seriously misjudged the mood within Democratic circles, which saw his departure as the only feasible way to heal that damage. Northam then tried to remedy the situation with a press conference on Saturday that ultimately proved his critics right. He retracted his admission that he was in the yearbook photo, telling reporters that he had mixed it up with a time he had actually worn blackface in 1984 to portray Michael Jackson in a look-a-like contest. His explanation for the error --that he was simply eager to “reach out and apologize” for whatever had happened -- smacked of political expediency instead of a genuine reckoning with his past actions.
Indeed, Northam seemed fundamentally unable to grasp the gravity of the scandal. When a reporter asked if he could still moonwalk like Jackson, Northam looked around as if to find space to prove he could. Only a pointed reminder from his wife -- “inappropriate circumstances,” she told him -- brought the governor back to reality. “In light of his public admission and apology for his decision to appear in the photo, he has irrevocably lost the faith and trust of the people he was elected to serve,” the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus said in a statement as the press conference unfolded. “Changing his public story today now casts further doubt on his ability to regain that trust.”
For all his professed confusion about what took place, Northam seems clear-eyed about the power dynamics at play here. He cannot be forced from office over this scandal: The state constitution only allows impeachment if the governor commits “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty or other high crime or misdemeanor,” none of which has happened here. Virginia’s governors are also limited to a single four-year term in office, so he does not need to appeal to the electorate to win reelection. Northam is, in practical terms, accountable to nothing for the next three years except his conscience.
Ideally, his conscience would be more than enough. Nobody expects a government of saints, of course. That’s why governors and legislators have fixed terms in office and regular opportunities to vote for their replacements. Anti-corruption laws and the power of impeachment even allow for removals from office without elections for the most egregious breaches of the public trust. Before all of that, however, is the underlying premise of public service: that elected officials will act in the public’s best interests and not necessarily their own. Northam’s refusal to step down subordinates those interests to his own political survival.
What makes this scandal so jarring is that Northam owes his job to black Virginians more than anyone else. His election in November 2017 came less than six months after the deadly white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville. It took place amid the backdrop of the Trump administration’s aggressive actions toward immigrants, Muslims and communities of color. And it pitted Northam against a state Republican Party that openly courted neo-Confederate sympathies and racist sentiments.
Northam’s election was supposed to mark a symbolic and substantive rebuke to all of that. “Black communities rallied against the threat of a very specific kind of overt racism that lives in Virginia’s bones, giving Democrats and Northam a clear mandate,” The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk wrote recently. “That they also elected (Lt. Gov.) Justin Fairfax -- the descendant of an enslaved man manumitted by the scion of one of Virginia’s founding families -- seemed particularly symbolic. This week, Northam has been revealed to be in violation of that mandate.”
Northam on Saturday cast himself as an honorable man, citing his distinguished record in the military’s medical services and as a pediatric neurologist in civilian life. He had an opportunity to prove his honor by placing Virginians’ interests, and the struggle against white supremacy, above his desire to spend the next three years as Virginia’s governor. But with an almost Trumpian act of self-absorption, he instead placed his political survival above all else.