Northam clings to power, but grip appears tenuous

Northam clings to power, but grip appears tenuous
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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) held an increasingly tenuous grip on his office Monday amid nearly unanimous calls for his resignation, while the man who would succeed him fiercely denied allegations of sexual assault.

On Monday, the first workday after a racist photo in Northam’s medical school yearbook was published by a conservative website, Northam convened two Cabinet meetings as he fought to hold on to the job he assumed just a year ago.

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Northam attended his home church on Sunday, a historically black church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He met with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, an influential group of lawmakers who reiterated their demand that he step down. And he met with minorities who work in his administration to assess whether he could still govern effectively, according to The Associated Press.

Northam spent Monday on the phone with community leaders attempting to shore up support but finding little help, according to sources with knowledge of Northam’s day. 

In a sign of just how far he had fallen, Northam and the College of William & Mary decided the governor should not appear on Friday for the inauguration of the college’s president.

Northam did not make any public statements on Monday. His last public comments came Saturday in a press conference in which he said he was not in the offending photo, which depicted a man in blackface and another man wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. 

But at the press conference, Northam did acknowledge wearing blackface to a costume party in which he dressed up as Michael Jackson. Northam appeared to consider a reporter’s request to do Jackson’s moonwalk before his wife stepped in.

Observers said Northam’s slim window of opportunity to save his job probably closed with the press conference.

“The press conference on Saturday probably was the end of the story for him. That was really not what he needed to do to address the situation,” said Karen Hult, who heads the political science department at Virginia Tech. “I’m afraid the die is cast at this point.”

Still, the Republican speaker of the state House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, said it was unlikely his chamber would move to impeach Northam. Impeachment requires a majority vote in the House of Delegates, and removal from office would require the votes of two-thirds of the state Senate.

“Obviously on impeachment, that’s a very high standard. So, I think that’s why we’ve called for a resignation. We hope that’s what the governor does. I think that would obviously be less pain for everyone,” Cox told reporters Monday morning.

Even as Northam struggled to survive, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) pushed back against a report on the same website, Big League Politics, that accused him of sexually assaulting a woman at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004.

In a private Facebook message posted by the website, the woman alleged sexual assault by a statewide officeholder whose identifying description match Fairfax. Fairfax’s top aides denied the allegations in a pre-dawn press release, and Fairfax, who was unmarried at the time, met with reporters to deny the allegations. He acknowledged a sexual encounter with the woman, though he said it was consensual.

“That allegation is completely false,” Fairfax, 39, told a scrum of reporters at the Capitol. “It’s completely uncorroborated.”

“This person, a year ago, came to The Washington Post with this very same allegation,” he said. “They made the decision not to publish the story because it was not credible, because it was uncorroborated, and what we know is that it is false and defamatory.”

In a story posted Monday, The Washington Post said the woman had approached the paper after Fairfax won election in 2017. The paper was unable to corroborate her version of events, though the Post said Fairfax’s initial characterization of her account as riddled with “red flags and inconsistencies” was not accurate.

Asked whether he believed Northam or his allies were behind the renewed interest in the story, Fairfax said he did not believe the “smear” was a coincidence. Fairfax said he had not spoken to Northam for a few days.

The tumult in Richmond came at a critical juncture for the state legislature, which faces a key deadline this week to advance bills and begin work on a state budget. Virtually every legislator has called on Northam to quit.

“It is complete chaos,” said one Democrat watching the unfolding political crisis.

Should Northam resign and Fairfax take over, Fairfax would be eligible to run for election in his own right in 2021, despite a state law limiting Virginia governors to a single term. Fairfax, who would become only the second black man to govern Virginia, was already likely to face a challenge in the Democratic primary from Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who said in December he would run for governor.

In a statement Saturday, Herring called on Northam to step down. He said he and Fairfax had spoken.

“It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down,” Herring said.