RICHMOND — If Gov. Ralph Northam resigns because of the scandal over a racist picture in his medical school yearbook, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would become the 74th governor of Virginia.
That would make Fairfax, 39, the second African-American governor in Virginia’s history and just the fourth to hold the office nationwide in recent years. In 1990, L. Douglas Wilder became the first elected African-American governor in the United States.
Article V, Section 16, of the Constitution of Virginia sets out the succession to the office of governor: “In the case of the removal of the Governor from office or in the case of his disqualification, death, or resignation, the Lieutenant Governor shall become Governor.”
Like Northam, Fairfax is a Democrat. He ran for lieutenant governor in 2017, defeating the Republican nominee, state Sen. Jill Vogel of Fauquier County. This is Fairfax’s first term in elective office.
Fairfax, who was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a descendent of Virginia slaves. When he was sworn into office, Fairfax was carrying in his breast pocket the manumission papers that freed his great-great-great-grandfather.
In private life, Fairfax is an attorney with a law firm in Northern Virginia and previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney. He is a graduate of Duke University and Columbia Law School and in 2013 won the National Bar Association’s “Nation’s Best Advocates Award,” which recognizes 40 top attorneys nationwide under the age of 40.
Northam said in public statement Saturday afternoon that he would not resign but instead would work to reconcile the “people he has hurt.” Northam added that Fairfax, who did not attend the governor’s press conference, did not want him to resign.
In a statement following the Northam’s press conference, Fairfax did not join Democratic colleagues calling for the governor’s resignation. Fairfax’s statement said of Northam: “While his career has been marked by service to children, soldiers and constituents, I cannot condone the actions from his past that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping and intimidation.”
As lieutenant governor, Fairfax is the presiding officer in the Virginia Senate. Republicans have a 22-19 advantage over Democrats in the Senate. The lieutenant governor votes only in the case of a tie.
Under the Virginia Constitution, if Fairfax does end up succeeding Northam, the Senate’s president pro tempore would serve as the Senate’s presiding officer. That position is currently held by Republican Sen. Stephen Newman of Bedford.
Newman issued a statement Saturday saying that “my wife and I have asked God to give our Governor wisdom in the coming hours, and for the health, clarity and resolve to do the right thing for the people of Virginia.”
“After this dark hour has passed, the President Pro Tempore must be in a position to serve as a healer, bringing all parties back together to work for a better and stronger Commonwealth,” Newman said.
By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service