During his State of the Commonwealth address earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam spoke to Virginia lawmakers about taking an “honest look” at the state’s past.
After congratulating the new Democratic majority on their gains in the General Assembly, he listed the priorities of his “fair and equitable” legislative agenda.
Sitting behind him was Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would soon preside over a Senate that would pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
Also in the audience was Attorney General Mark Herring, who has made marijuana decriminalization and legalization a top priority, saying current laws disproportionately affect people of color.
As lawmakers rose to applaud the governor every few seconds, it was hard to recall that nearly a year before, the state’s top three officials -- all Democrats -- were mired in scandal, with near-ubiquitous calls for their resignations.
Saturday marks one year since a racist photo on Northam’s Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page surfaced, setting off a chain of events that nearly brought down the entire Democratic leadership in Virginia and handed unified control of state government to Republicans.
But it didn’t. In fact, it had the opposite effect.
On Feb. 1, 2019 -- the start of Black History Month -- Northam’s muddled admission to being one of the people in a photo that showed someone in blackface and someone in Ku Klux Klan robes led to a nearly unanimous call for his resignation, including, perhaps most notably, from the legislature’s black caucus.
When he reversed his admission the next day during a nationally televised press conference but confessed to putting shoe polish on his face to impersonate Michael Jackson for a dance contest, it seemed inevitable the Eastern Shore native’s political career was doomed.
But he refused to step down, saying that would be the easy way out.
“If I were to listen to the voices calling on me to resign my office today, I could spare myself from the different path that lies ahead,” he said. “I could avoid an honest conversation about harmful actions from my past.”
Instead, he began repeating with a consistent drumbeat that he was going to focus the rest of his term -- which runs until January 2022 -- on righting wrongs and addressing Virginia’s harsh, racist history.
In the meantime, his medical school hired a firm to investigate the 1984 yearbook, and concluded that they could not determine who had been in the photo, but that the school knew about it for years and there were other instances in the pages of students painting their faces black.
Janice Underwood, whom Northam hired as the state’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion, acknowledged the events of Feb. 1, 2019, illuminated the racial inequalities that have always existed and said it gave her an opportunity to have hard conversations about race.
In a recent interview, she was asked if she thought her position would exist had the blackface scandal not occurred.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m just glad I’m here.”
Throughout the year -- indeed, even just a month after the blackface scandal -- polls showed that most black Virginians didn’t want Northam to quit.
Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, thinks that’s because black voters are pragmatic. It doesn’t make sense for them to denounce Northam or his potential successors for something that happened decades ago, especially when the alternative was a Republican -- Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, who under the state Constitution would have become governor if Northam resigned and Fairfax and Herring were both unable to succeed him.
“I don’t think we can say the scandal was good for black voters, but I do think we can say black voters leveraged the scandal for positive policy outcomes,” Johnson said. “It was black Virginians who told (Northam) the best way to make up for this would be to respond via policy.”
Here are a few of those policies he’s prioritized: a commission to look at racially discriminatory language in the state code. Another to look at how Virginia schools teach African American history.
A promise to end Virginia’s racial disparities in maternal deaths by 2025. A removal of references to Confederate president Jefferson Davis at Fort Monroe. A show of opposition to other Confederate monuments. A vow to veto any bills that increase mandatory minimum prison sentences, which the governor said disproportionately impact black Virginians.
Northam’s also done the other things the Democratic party expects him to do, Johnson said, including expand Medicaid, support the ERA ratification, and restore rights to felons.
“He’s been a good party representative in terms of party objective, and he’s also the political capital that black Virginians accrued by not demanding his resignation,” Johnson said.
That may not be the case for Fairfax, who continues to vehemently deny the accusations of sexual assault that began to emerge less than 48 hours after the racist photo’s revelation, when it seemed he would become governor in the case of Northam’s resignation. He would’ve been the state’s second African-American governor.
Since then, he’s passed a polygraph test to prove his innocence. He’s asked prosecutors in the two cities where women alleged he sexually assaulted them in the early 2000s -- Durham, North Carolina, and Boston -- to investigate, which the accusers called a political stunt even as they asked for the Virginia General Assembly to hold public hearings.
He sued CBS for defamation over the network’s interview of the two accusing women, and repeatedly posted about the “exonerating evidence” on Twitter.
And he said he was planning on running for governor in 2021.
He has, in short, made his case in the court of public opinion rather than a courtroom, Johnson said.
“The louder he denies it, the more that message gets out,” he said.
By the end of that chaotic week in early February, Herring -- third in line for governor -- publicly announced his own blackface incident from college. Now, he too has hinted at a run for governor.
“The week the scandals broke, that was not the kind of leader Virginia was looking for,” said Jennifer Lawless, a University of Virginia political science professor.
But it was an election year for Democrats, and rather than give Republicans more political fuel by showing division, they kept their heads down.
“Democrats didn’t want to generate any instability when it came to the party’s fortunes heading into the next election,” Lawless said.
Voters, too, drew distinctions between the Democratic Party as a whole and the top office-holders who were members of that party. Polls repeatedly showed a preference for the Democrats to control the legislature, despite the stain left on the party by the leaders’ scandals and the GOP campaign ads referencing them.
So voters elected a Democratic majority determined to protect women’s rights, pass stricter gun control, address criminal justice inequities, and make it easier to vote, work, live and go to school in Virginia without discrimination.
“Around issues pertaining to sex and race, the state has basically said, ‘Enough is enough, we’re not going to tolerate this,’” Lawless said.
Most Republicans so far have vocally opposed such changes. Since session began Jan. 8, they’ve decried Democrats’ proposed gun control measures as unconstitutional, objected to legislation intended to loosen abortion restrictions and introduced bills to keep criminals who commit certain crimes in prison for longer.
Today, it seems things have gone back to normal in the state’s capital. Northam holds regular press conferences announcing his budget priorities. Fairfax presides over the Senate, posing for pictures with female ERA supporters and student doctors in the gallery. Herring signs on to lawsuits opposing various Trump administration actions. On Thursday, he was in Washington for a press conference announcing litigation to force federal officials to acknowledge that -- thanks to Virginia -- the ERA has enough votes to become part of the U.S. Constitution.
Regardless of what happens to the state’s top three Democrats, Virginia will have a new governor in two years. Under the state Constitution, Northam can’t run for another consecutive term.
A pediatric neurologist by trade, he’s hinted he may return to medicine, perhaps even at EVMS, where a single page in a 1984 yearbook sat quietly in the library until a year ago, when Virginia’s politics changed forever -- just not in the way anyone thought.