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Feb. 1, 2019: A turning point day for Ralph Northam, Virginia

ralph northam
Ralph Northam

Two years ago today, Feb. 1, 2019, we were first confronted with the medical school yearbook photo of Gov. Ralph Northam and a friend, one in blackface, the other in a KKK robe and hood.

As calls came in from all quarters, most notably, numerous prominent fellow Democrats – former governor Terry McAuliffe, Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, anybody who is anybody in the General Assembly – for Northam to resign, he, at first, apologized for the photo, trying to buy time.

Here was the first public statement on the photo from the governor, from Feb. 1:

“Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive.

“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.

“This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.

“I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their governor.”

Facing the end of his political career square in the face, Northam reversed course the next day, recanting his admission that he had been in the photo, in an odd press conference at the governor’s mansion, in which it came to light, per Northam himself, that he’d participated in a dance contest in which he’d darkened his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume.

This he offered, things getting stranger by the minute, as corroboration of his contention that, in fact, he hadn’t been in the yearbook photo, citing his “clear memory of other mistakes that I made in the same period of my life.”

“I had the shoes, I had a glove, and I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put under, or on my cheeks,” Northam said. “The reason I used a very little bit is because, I don’t know if anybody has ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off.”

He actually said that.

In front of people, and all.

Thinking this would somehow make him look better.

For what it’s worth, he said he won the dance contest, so he had that going for him.

He somehow survived the first 24 hours after the yearbook photo scandal, then the weekend – Feb. 1, 2019, was a Friday, and it was hotly debated at the time whether he’d still be governor Monday morning.

In the days following, video resurfaced of Northam refusing to shake hands with Republican opponent E.W. Jackson from a lieutenant governor debate in 2013, and media reports highlighted an uncomfortable story from his 2017 gubernatorial campaign involving campaign flyers that omitted Justin Fairfax, an African American running for lieutenant governor, which the Northam campaign explained away at the time by saying they had been created for a labor union that wasn’t endorsing Fairfax.

It looked and felt like the end was coming.

It’s hard to figure out how, but Northam was able to hang on.

The heat simmered down, he got through the end of the General Assembly session, then into the spring.

A law firm engaged to review the yearbook photo controversy reported in May 2019 that it had not been able to determine whether the governor appeared in the photo.

“With respect to the photograph on Gov. Northam’s personal page, we could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in the photograph. The governor himself has made inconsistent public statements in this regard,” the report stated.

Northam’s office issued a statement from the governor coinciding with the release of that report asserting that he was not in the “racist and offensive photo” in the yearbook.

“That being said, I know and understand the events of early February and my response to them have caused hurt for many Virginians and for that, I am sorry,” Northam said. “I felt it was important to take accountability for the photo’s presence on my page, but rather than providing clarity, I instead deepened pain and confusion.

“In visits with local leaders across the Commonwealth, I have engaged in frank and necessary dialogue on how I can best utilize the power of the governor’s office to enact meaningful progress on issues of equity and better focus our administration’s efforts for the remainder of my term. That conversation will continue, with ensuing action, and I am committed to working to build a better and more equitable Virginia for all who call it home,” Northam said.

It feels like an accident of history that he’s still governor of Virginia, but to his credit, Northam quietly went to work to try to make his show of contrition more than empty words providing personal and political cover.

His first state budget in the wake of the controversy, presented to state legislators in December 2019, included $2.5 million to support K-12 attendance at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, $7 million to support historic African American sites, and $2 million to provide students from across the Commonwealth the ability to visit the American Civil War Museum.

Northam also empaneled a Commission on African American History Education that is reviewing the Commonwealth’s K-12 history standards to ensure Virginia students are taught accurate and comprehensive version of Virginia’s history, and created a Commission to Examine Racial Inequity in Virginia Law is working with legislators to remove racist and discriminatory language that remains on Virginia’s books.

He’s led the effort to remove statues from state and local public property honoring leaders of the Confederacy, made Juneteenth, the oldest known commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, a paid state holiday.

Just last week, Northam announced his support for legislation in the General Assembly that commits the state to increasing discretionary spending with woman- and minority-owned businesses.

He survived Feb. 1, the survived the weekend, survived the spring, he’s still governor, and he seems to be trying to make it right.

Now, you can’t overlook the fact that there’s self-interest at play here.

The state constitution prevents Northam from succeeding himself, so it’s not re-election motivating him.

He’s 62 next January when his successor is sworn in. Perhaps an appointment to head a federal agency from the Biden administration could be in the offing thereafter.

It’s hard to imagine him being able to elevate to the U.S. Senate, with Mark Warner having just been re-elected to a third term in November, and Tim Kaine in the middle of a term that comes up for re-election in 2024.

The most likely course from the standpoint of politics is the consulting/lobbying complex.

With that, a quasi-public/private existence, or even just a return to the quiet life of being a country doctor, he needed to repair his reputation.

Even if all this is from Northam is him trying to look like he’s making amends, the effect for Virginia has been positive.

It’s not quite a negative being turned in a positive, because we’re really just starting to scratch the tip of the surface in terms of addressing 400+ years of systemic racism.

But isn’t it odd to think that Feb. 1, 2019, may, years into the future, be looked back on as a day that finally got Virginia moving in the direction that we’d needed to take for decades?

Story by Chris Graham


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