Governor scandal hangs over busy day for Virginia government

RICHMOND, Va. (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 a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page.
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 picture that surfaced late last week of 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. He spent Monday in conversations with top advisers about whether he can still govern.
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. 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.
Northam stayed out of sight Monday as he met with his Cabinet and senior staff to hear their assessment of whether it was feasible for him to stay in office, according to a top administration official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Calls from lawmakers for Northam’s resignation seemed to ease. State Del. Lamont Bagby, head of the Legislative Black Caucus, said Monday that there was little left to say: “I’m going to let him breathe a little bit, give him space to make the right decision.”
Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said he told Northam the state cannot afford a prolonged period of uncertainty over his future due to factors including the budget and tax negotiations.
“One way or the other, it needs to be resolved,” Layne said.
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 put on blackface to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas decades ago.
Referring to the allegation against him, Fairfax said he was not surprised it came at a critical time: “It’s at that point that they come out with the attacks and the smears. It is unfortunate. It really is, but it’s sadly a part of our politics now.”
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 Monday 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.