From abortion to blackface, Va. governor engulfed in controversy

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pauses during a news conference in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Va., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Resisting widespread calls for his resignation, Northam on Saturday vowed to remain in office after disavowing a racist photograph that appeared under his name in his 1984 medical school yearbook. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. — Last Wednesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was blasted for controversial abortion comments he made during a radio interview. Two days later, news outlets reported that a racist photo appears on Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page. On Tuesday, he clung to office even as Democrats had been denouncing him for days.

This image shows Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. The page shows a picture, at right, of a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood next to different pictures of the governor. It’s unclear who the people in the picture are, but the rest of the page is filled with pictures of Northam and lists his undergraduate alma mater and other information about him. (Eastern Virginia Medical School via AP)

One of the busiest days on the Virginia legislature’s calendar began under a cloud of suspense Tuesday as Gov. Ralph Northam weighed whether he can continue in the job amid the fallout over these twin controversies.

With tension running high, lawmakers began arriving for crossover day — when the House and Senate must finish bills to send to the other chamber — after days of turmoil set off by the photo, which depicts someone in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

Amid a barrage of calls for his resignation from his own party, the 59-year-old Democratic governor gave no public indication of which way he was leaning as he met privately with top advisers.

In another sign of the difficulty he faces in carrying out his duties, a statement from Northam offering condolences on the death of a state trooper in a shootout prompted a fresh flurry Tuesday of Twitter comments urging him to step down.

The uncertainty comes at a time when Northam’s office is in the middle of negotiations with the Republican-controlled legislature over a major tax overhaul and changes to the state budget.

Nearly all of the state’s Democratic establishment has turned against Northam, as have many of the party’s national figures, but no one from his cabinet has resigned.

The political crisis deepened when the man next in line to be governor, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, was confronted with an uncorroborated allegation of sexual misconduct first reported by a conservative website but investigated by the Washington Post. Fairfax denied the allegation Monday and called it a political smear, telling reporters the 2004 encounter with a woman was consensual.

The woman has retained Washington law firm Katz Marshall & Banks and is consulting with it about her next steps, said a person close to the legal team who was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

One of the firm’s founding partners, Debra Katz, represented Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her decades ago when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh denied the allegation and later was confirmed to the court.

The Associated Press is not reporting the details of the Fairfax accusation because AP has not been able to corroborate it.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist who graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School and came to politics late in life, is one year into his four-year term. If Northam resigns, Fairfax will become the second black governor in Virginia history.

The furor over the photo erupted Friday, when Northam first admitted he was in the picture without saying which costume he was wearing, and apologized. But a day later, he denied he was in the photo, while also acknowledging he once used shoe polish to blacken his face and look like Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas decades ago.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax speaks during an interview in his office at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Fairfax answered questions about the controversial photo in Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

As for the allegations against the lieutenant governor, The Washington Post said Monday that it was approached by the woman in 2017 and carefully investigated but never published a story for lack of any independent evidence.

The Post said the woman had not told anyone about it, the account could not be corroborated, Fairfax denied it, and the Post was unable to find other similar allegations against him among people who knew him in college, law school or in politics.

The woman did not immediately respond to a voicemail, text message or email from an AP reporter.

The allegations were first reported by Big League Politics, the news outlet that first published the yearbook image.

The controversy surrounding Northam spurred the first major test for how Democratic presidential hopefuls will address racial tensions that have polarized American life.

Nearly every major declared and potential Democratic candidate called for Northam’s resignation after disclosure of the photo, which shows one person in blackface and another hooded in white Klan regalia.

Their reactions came before Northam, 59, who is white, said during a news conference Saturday that he was not in the photo on his page of the 1984 yearbook. He acknowledged using blackface when he dressed as pop icon Michael Jackson for a dance contest, also in 1984.

That leaves Democrats running for president, or considering bids, to navigate an explosive and embarrassing story as they mount campaigns to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020.

North State Journal staff contributed to this report.