Gov. Ralph Northam remained hunkered down Monday as Virginia’s political crisis widened to include an uncorroborated sexual assault allegation against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
Northam made no new public statements as attention shifted to the accusation against Fairfax, who would succeed Northam if the governor chooses to heed his colleagues’ resounding calls to resign over a racist photo that appeared in his 1984 medical school yearbook.
After apologizing for appearing in the photo showing a man in blackface next to a figure in Ku Klux Klan robes, Northam has said that he now believes he was not in the photo and that it may have been placed on his yearbook page by mistake.
Though Northam has lost the support of virtually his entire party, he appears to have bought himself more time to try to clear his name.
“I’m going to let him breathe a little bit,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, the chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. “I’m confident he’s going to make the right decision.”
Northam met with his Cabinet Monday morning and the meeting ended without any decision on whether Northam would resign, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting.
As the allegation against Fairfax appeared to ease pressure on Northam, some Fairfax allies have claimed, without evidence, that Northam’s team may have orchestrated the story, which first appeared on the same right-wing website that posted the yearbook photo. Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said the accusation was “absolutely untrue.” But Fairfax seemed to fuel that speculation when reporters asked if he believes Northam’s administration may have played a role.
“You’re great reporters,” Fairfax said. “You’ll get to digging and you’ll get to make some connections.”
As lawmakers returned to the Capitol to continue their work on the state budget, tax policy and hundreds of other bills, legislators said they were attempting to focus on their own work and what they could control.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said Monday morning that he has no plans to try to force Northam out.
“I think there’s a rightful hesitation about removal from office, because obviously you have to consider that to some degree you’re overturning an election,” Cox told reporters.
The speaker said he continues to believe Northam has lost the ability to govern “regardless of the veracity of the photograph.” But he added that he’s not convinced the yearbook scandal meets the constitutional threshold for impeachment proceedings.
“That’s why we have called for the resignation,” Cox said. “We hope that’s what the governor does. I think that would obviously be less pain for everyone.”
No lawmakers made floor speeches on the Northam scandal, but Capitol Square took on a circus atmosphere as reporters swarmed the grounds to cover the controversy and about 100 protesters gathered outside the Executive Mansion to call on Northam to resign.
“We want him to leave today,” Hilda Espinosa said in a speech that was spoken in Spanish but translated to English. “Not a single day more.”
The protesters — many of whom said they supported Northam in the 2017 gubernatorial election — chanted, held signs and marched around the Patrick Henry Building.
“We’re not allowing racists to be in office and an apology is not enough,” said Zyahna Bryant of Charlottesville.
Rally organizer Luis Aguilar said the protests will continue until Northam resigns.
“It’s the most egregious thing that a governor could do,” said Stephanie Fritsch, who lives outside of Harrisburg, Pa., and took a bus to Richmond early Monday to join the protest. “Everyone is accountable for what they do in the past and he’s trying not to be.”
As Northam clung to power, there were signs his office is not functioning as it normally would.
The governor has released no public schedule for the week. His administration did not announce appointments to state boards and commissions at the usual time Friday afternoon as the yearbook scandal broke. There was no news release from the administration responding to budget proposals released by the House and Senate. And it became clear Northam would not be participating in at least one ceremonial activity he had previously committed to.
The College of William & Mary announced Northam will not attend an annual celebration of the school and the inauguration of its current president on Friday because the school and the governor’s office decided his presence would be disruptive.
President Katherine Rowe, who has led Virginia’s oldest school since last summer, announced the decision to William & Mary students Monday morning.
“That behavior has no place in civil society — not 35 years ago, not today,” Rowe said of the yearbook photo. “It stands in stark opposition to William & Mary’s core values of equity and inclusion.”