Va. governor’s political limitations on stark display
Richmond, Va. – Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s great virtue, as the voters saw it, was that he wasn’t a career politician, but a friendly doctor who came to politics late in life. Now that same quality may be contributing to what is looking more and more like a spectacular career-ending disaster.
The 59-year-old Democrat is under bone-crushing pressure from his own party to resign over a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page of someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. And his efforts to quell the uproar have been seen as so clumsy and wince-inducing that they may well have made things worse.
To some, his lack of political seasoning seems to be on full display.
On Friday, he apologized for the picture, acknowledging he was in the photo without saying which costume he was wearing. Then on Saturday, he took it back, telling reporters that he is now certain that wasn’t him in the photo.
At the same news conference, Northam acknowledged putting on blackface decades ago to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest. And at one point, he seemed as if he might do the moonwalk for reporters before his wife intervened to tell him no.
“Northam’s appeal to the voters was that he wasn’t an ordinary politician. But if he had been more of an ordinary politician, that press conference probably wouldn’t have gone as badly as it did,” said University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth.
Northam is in an almost unsustainable position with three years left in his term. He has no base of political support and has become a pariah, with fellow Democrats fearing he would ruin the party’s prospects in a key election year.
But Northam said on Saturday that his oath of office and personal beliefs – instilled in him at a tradition-bound military academy with a strict honor code – require him to push forward.
“I cannot in good conscience choose the path that would be easier for me in an effort to duck my responsibility to reconcile,” he said.
Northam got into politics in his late 40s and was elected governor 10 years later. His rapid rise, including a stint as lieutenant governor, was powered more by his biography than political charisma or know-how.
A standout baseball player from Virginia’s Eastern Shore and a star student at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Northam served as an Army doctor treating the wounded in the first Gulf War, then ran a medical practice in Norfolk as a pediatric neurologist. He also volunteered as medical director of a children’s hospice, caring for dying youngsters and their families.
When Northam first ran for state Senate in 2007, then-Gov. Tim Kaine, a fellow Democrat, joked that a “supercomputer” couldn’t have come up with a better resume.
It turned out to be the perfect pedigree in the 2017 gubernatorial race, when Northam easily won after presenting himself as the soothing antidote to President Donald Trump’s polarizing style. Voters for Northam often described him as “decent” and “honest.”
Northam recently celebrated his first year in office, a year widely viewed as one of the most successful of any recent governor’s. Northam scored what would normally be two legacy-making victories: expanding Medicaid and landing a new Amazon headquarters with 25,000 new jobs.
But now his reputation is largely in tatters, especially after Saturday’s news conference, where he did not fully explain why he first admitted to being in the picture and nearly played along when a reporter asked if he could still moonwalk.
“I winced when I saw that,” former Gov. Terry McAuliffe said on CNN.
Northam’s response to the crisis may well illustrate his limitations as a politician.
“All of his weaknesses on display yesterday were essentially his strengths the day before yesterday,” Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University.
Democratic state Sen. Louise Lucas, a prominent African-American lawmaker whose great grandson was once one of Northam’s patients, was among the many calling on the governor to resign.
“I refuse to believe that someone of his intellect would not understand or know how serious this issue is and deal with it in a manner that would create a healing process to begin,” she said.
Northam was caught up in another controversy just two days before the racist photo surfaced, when he defended Democrats’ efforts to loosen restrictions on late-term abortions.
During a radio interview, he described a hypothetical situation where an infant who is severely deformed or unable to survive after birth would be resuscitated “if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue” between the doctor and mother. Democrats privately grumbled about Northam’s inartful comments, and Republicans accused him of supporting infanticide.
Democrats are worried about what Northam’s refusal to resign may mean for the party. Northam helped the Democrats win 15 seats in the House of Delegates in 2017 and was expected to be key – both in raising money and boosting candidate’s profiles – during this year’s legislative elections.
Now lawmakers say they don’t want appear next to Northam at any events and are sure they can’t count on him to raise money. All 140 state legislative seats are up for election this year and Virginia is the only state where Democrats have a strong chance of flipping control of the state legislature.
Northam was asked on Saturday if he was worried about hurting his party’s chances this November. He said he would revisit his decision not to step down if he thought he was being ineffective, but for now is staying the course.
“All I can do is what I’ve always done, and that’s to be honest,” Northam said.
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