Even if Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax weren’t in line to succeed Ralph Northam—should the Virginia governor resign over the discovery of horrifically racist medical-school-yearbook photos from 1984—Northam should do so anyway. The fact that Fairfax, a progressive African-American attorney, will succeed Northam provides a measure of restorative justice in what has become an ugly reckoning with the persistence of racial cruelty well past the Jim Crow era in Virginia.
The story keeps getting crazier. At first, Northam admitted he was one of the men in the ugly photos, and apologized. It was bad: As an adult of 25, attending medical school, he and a friend dressed up, one in blackface and one in Ku Klux Klan robes, apparently for a party (the man in blackface is festively holding a beer). Northam insisted he couldn’t remember whether he was the Klansman or the other guy, which struck folks as unbelievable—certainly, one would remember painstakingly donning blackface—leading most observers to conclude he wore the Klan robes. Either way, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, in a period of political and racial backlash, it seemed that Northam thought it was funny to don a costume of terror. It was not.
Then, on Saturday morning, Northam claimed he was not in the noxious photo, but offered no explanation as to how it got on his yearbook page. After reports that Northam planned to resign at 9 am, and then at 10 am, he told allies he had no plans to resign.
So far, his denials don’t seem to be helping. Immediately after the news broke that Northam had vowed to stay in office, the Virginia Democratic Party released a damning statement:
We made the decision to let Governor Northam do the correct thing and resign this morning—we have gotten word he will not do so this morning. We stand with Democrats across Virginia and the country calling him to immediately resign. He no longer has our confidence or our support. Governor Northam must end this chapter immediately, step down, and let Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax heal Virginia’s wounds and move us forward. We can think of no better person than Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax to do so.
First-term Virginia Democratic delegate Kelly Convirs Fowler agrees. “As elected officials, we are held to a high standard and must do what is best for those we represent. We cannot normalize racist attitudes or blame faulty memories. Anything less than resignation is unacceptable.”
Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus demanded Northam resign within hours of the photos becoming public. So did former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, as well as a raft of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren. In a particular sign of trouble for Northam, on Saturday morning former vice president Joe Biden joined them. That push from an older, moderate Democrat, who also harbors 2020 ambitions, had to tell Northam that there exists no Democratic constituency for his insisting on keeping his seat. But he’s pushing on, for now, nonetheless.
Northam is particularly vulnerable on this racial issue because of widespread and well-founded anger, during the 2017 Virginia state election, that his campaign at times distributed literature without Fairfax’s name or photo as part of his slate, once at the behest of a union that opposed Fairfax because he refused to support two gas lines proposed for Virginia.
“This should not have happened, and it should not happen again,” Fairfax told The Washington Post at the time. “There needs to be robust investment in making sure that we are communicating with African American voters and we are engaging our base.”
The irony was—and is—that Northam benefited from an enormous mobilization of black voters. And at the time, leaders of that mobilization whispered to me on background about the slight to Fairfax through clenched teeth, but wanted to maintain a united front anyway, to get through the historic election. In the end, Fairfax won with only 40,000 fewer votes than Northam—rare for a lieutenant governor. And in fact, many observers believed a “reverse coattails” effect behind Fairfax, plus a historically diverse Democratic House of Delegates slate (the party gained 15 seats, one shy of the majority), helped Northam outperform Hillary Clinton’s Virginia showing just a year before.
That’s why no one forgot about the Northam campaign’s slight to Fairfax in 2017.
Northam’s fall is nonetheless a shame. Virginia Democrats have made remarkable strides since the historic 2017 election, most notably expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. And it was certainly galling to watch Republicans in Virginia and across the country quickly demand Northam’s resignation. The party’s 2018 Senate nominee, Corey Stewart, is a stalwart friend of white nationalists who says the movement to preserve Confederate monuments represents “taking back our heritage,” though he’s from Minnesota. Northam’s 2017 GOP opponent Ed Gillespie is a former moderate who ran as a Virginian Donald Trump, attacking Northam for backing undocumented-immigrant harboring “sanctuary cities”—the state doesn’t have any sanctuary cities—and coddling the M-13 gang. Northam’s victory was depicted as the triumph of racial diversity over racial division.
But all of that is why he has to go. The Democratic Party has belatedly embraced the diversity of its base and the centrality of black voters within it. Barring something unforeseeable—Northam discovers that Gillespie and Stewart posed in Klan and blackface costumes and posted their photo to his 25-year-old yearbook?—his Saturday-morning protests are not likely to change the outcomes. He should go, and he will go. “Governor Justin Fairfax” has a lovely, restorative ring.