After repeatedly playing the racism card against Republicans, Democrats now discover it in their own ranks.
Why Phony Liberal Ralph Northam Is Doomed
Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Democratic governor, addressed reporters Saturday in Richmond amid a national firestorm over a recently-surfaced yearbook page that show the future politician’s wearing blackface. His aim was to salvage his governorship. But as Democrats abandon him en masse, he is a dead man walking. Democrats, who have been regularly accusing Republicans of racism, have now discovered it in their own ranks. Northam, a liberal star, has now turned out to be a fraud and a phony.
“I did not purchase the EVMS yearbook,” Northam said, referring to Eastern Virginia Medical School, the institution in question where the 1984 yearbook page appeared. “When my staff showed me the photo, in question, yesterday I was seeing it for the first time… And I was unaware of what was on my page.” His performance at the press conference was totally unpersuasive. President Trump, in two tweets, called Northam’s actions “Unforgivable!” and took a swipe at Ed Gillespie, who ran for Governor in 2016: “Ed Gillespie…must now be thinking Malpractice and Dereliction of Duty with regard to his Opposition Research Staff. If they find that terrible picture before the election, he wins by 20 points!” Trump had a point. Northam, who ran as the conscience of Virginia on racial matters, was himself totally vulnerable on this front.
In his press conference on Saturday, Northam ried to backtrack from the categorical acceptance he issued Friday. “I am not and will not excuse the content of the photo,” Virginia’s governor said. “It was offensive, racist and despicable. … But I believed then, a now, that I am not either of the people in that photo.” The photograph shows one young man in blackface, and another in Ku Klux Klan robes. This implausible statement has only added to Northam’s political troubles.
Adding to the controversy was Northam’s decision to admit to other racial insensitivities as an attempt at exoneration. “My belief that I did not wear that costume, or attend that party, stems from clear memory of other mistakes I made from this same period in my life,” Northam said. “That same year, I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio, in which I darkened my face, as part of a Michael Jackson costume. I look back now, and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that.” Northam argued the incident made such an impact on him that there was no way he could have forgotten undertaking a similar act in the same time period. “You remember these things,” he said.
Northam has been largely abandoned by both the Virginian and national Democratic establishments. His friend and mentor, Terry McAuliffe, the former governor under whom he served as lieutenant and who remains a party power player, has called for his resignation. Also piling on Northam are former key allies, such as the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which has demanded he step down. Northam met with the group -- and spoke with McCauliffe -- ahead of the dual announcements. A political protege of Northam’s, Richmond mayor Levar Stoney, has also joined that call, as have major presidential candidates such as Kamala Harris and Julian Castro. “I don't know. I’ve never seen anyone in blackface-- and I'm from Richmond,” comments a veteran, Virginia-born political operative. “Do wonder how on earth he could have fallen into the pit even a generation ago,” a former associate of Northam told me.
Northam’s remaining firewall had been two other former Virginia governors -- now senators -- Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. No longer. Both released language condemnatory of Northam’s actions Friday night, but were equivocal on whether he should step aside. It would appear Saturday was not a hit. Following the press conference, they too, along with Rep. Bobby Scott, one of the commonwealth’s two African-American congressman, called for his resignation.
Most prominently standing by Northam are Virginia Senate Minority Dick Saslaw and former Congressman Jim Moran.
“He just needs to hold for two weeks,” another veteran Republican political operative told me, arguing that Northam’s path to partial rehabilitation -- and resuscitating prospects of post-gubernatorial monetization -- laid in sticking it out. “He still will have a lot of power and after it’s he isn’t resigning, everyone in Virginia will have to play ball with him.” But the source conceded the Warner and Kaine renunciations were likely a deathknell.
Northam’s political collapse has been met with general schadenfreude on the right. Northam likely drew increased media scrutiny earlier in the week as a result of viral radio hit in which the governor appeared to endorse abortion procedures that conservatives say are tantamount to infanticide. Others observed that the standard applied to the past of Brett M. Kavanaugh, Trump’s confirmed but controversial Supreme Court pick, was now being applied to Northam. In the case of Northam, though, there is direct evidence of his past actions.
Northam would be succeeded by Justin E. Fairfax, the African American lieutenant governor who made headlines last month for protesting a Virginia General Assembly homage to Robert E. Lee. So far, he has not called upon Northam to resign. Regardless of his decision, Northam is term-limited, as all Virginia governors are confined to one term. Fairfax, by contrast, would be eligible to run for a full term in 2021, setting up the prospect of an extensive administration by the standards of the Old Dominion.
Curt Mills is a foreign-affairs reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtMills.