NORFOLK — The mystery of whether Gov. Ralph Northam was in the racist yearbook photo that upended Virginia politics may never be solved, but one thing is clear: The governor has survived what many initially thought was a fatal blow and has managed to return to something resembling normal.
Since a picture surfaced in February from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page showing a man in blackface standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe, Northam has managed to fend off demands for his resignation.
He’s even won praise from black lawmakers for such moves as ending the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and ordering a review of how schools teach America’s racial history.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what else comes out of the administration,” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, a member of the black caucus and a rising star in her party who is considering a statewide run in 2021.
Stephen Morris, an African American from Suffolk, reacted with a shrug Wednesday after attorneys hired by Eastern Virginia Medical School said they couldn’t “conclusively determine” the identities of either person in the 35-year-old photo.
“I don’t take it to be a big thing. As long as he’s doing the right thing with our government, I don’t think he should leave office at all,” Morris said.
Such a muted response is a far cry from a few months ago when Northam’s clumsy response to the picture caused a major uproar. The Democrat initially acknowledged he was in the photo and apologized, then reversed course the next day, saying he was not in it.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, the state House Democratic Caucus, the state Senate Democratic Caucus, the Democratic Party of Virginia, and every Virginia Democrat in Congress called on Northam to resign. So did Democratic presidential hopefuls and several key progressive groups that have been some of the governor’s closest political allies.
“People he naively thought were friends didn’t even make a phone call to at least tell the governor they were going to call for his resignation,” Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, told lawyers investigating the yearbook picture.
In a statement Wednesday, Northam, a 59-year-old pediatric neurologist, repeated that he’s not in the photo and apologized again to Virginians, admitting his handling of the episode “deepened pain and confusion.”
The picture started a wave of scandals that quickly enveloped Northam’s two potential successors, both Democrats. Two women publicly accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, which he denied. And just days after calling on Northam to resign, Attorney General Mark Herring announced he, too, had worn blackface in the 1980s when he was in college.
Both Fairfax and Herring also ignored calls to resign. The Democratic Party of Virginia recently rejected a bid by Fairfax to sponsor a table at the party’s biggest fundraising dinner of the year. And Herring, who had previously announced a run for governor in 2021, faces an uncertain political future.
And while Northam has been able to return to a sense of normalcy, his tenure will forever be marked by the scandal. He recently had to cancel a political fundraiser where protesters gathered, and withdrew as a commencement speaker at his alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute.
The three interlocking scandals briefly raised the possibility that Virginia’s top three Democrats would lose their jobs and the Republican House speaker would become governor.
On Wednesday, GOP House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert panned the investigation, saying the report didn’t prove Northam isn’t in the picture. He also noted that according to the report, the medical school’s leaders knew about the picture before it became public and said nothing.
“It certainly appears that there was an effort to avoid public disclosure of such a racist photograph on the yearbook page of the most prominent alumni in school history,” Gilbert said.