'Who do you replace him with?' Northam's chances of survival grow as scandals spread

FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2018 file photo, Virginia Gov.-elect, Lt. Gov Ralph Northam, center, walks down the reviewing stand with Lt. Gov-elect, Justin Fairfax, right, and Attorney General Mark Herring at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

One week after dozens of prominent Democrats demanded Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s resignation over decades-old racist yearbook photos, Northam remains in the statehouse, the next two officials in the constitutional line of succession are embroiled in their own controversies, and party leaders are quietly backing off calls for him to step down.

“So far, his saving grace has been: who do you replace him with?” said Gary Nordlinger, a political media consultant and executive in residence at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Professional Management.

After Big League Politics uncovered a photo of a man in blackface and a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood on Northam’s page in his 1984 medical school yearbook, the governor issued a statement of apology that said he was one of the people in the picture. At a somewhat bizarre news conference the next day, he denied being in the photo but admitted to wearing blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest in San Antonio.

“He certainly made a series of missteps,” Nordlinger said, noting a moment when Northam appeared ready to show off his dance moves during the press conference until his wife stopped him.

However, what seemed like a politically painless solution for Democrats last Friday night—Northam out, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax in—has become exponentially more complicated as two women have come forward accusing Fairfax of sexual misconduct. Fairfax denies those allegations, but leading Democrats have said at least one accuser seems credible.

State Attorney General Mark Herring—who called for Northam to resign over the weekend—would be next in line, but he announced earlier this week that he also dressed in blackface once in college. If all three of them heeded calls to step down, they would be handing the governorship to the Republican speaker of the House.

“There’s not a constitutional officer in the chain of succession that’s not accused of something,” Nordlinger said. “So, are you going to put the Republican speaker of the House in? That’s every Democrat’s worst nightmare.”

Media reports Friday suggested Northam is not going anywhere and fully intends to ride out the controversy to serve the rest of his term. According to BuzzFeed, he is now looking to focus his legislative agenda on race and equality and is reading Alex Haley’s “Roots.”

The Virginia House Democratic Caucus issued a statement Thursday claiming to be “deeply and unequivocally disappointed” in Northam and Herring and alarmed by the accusations against Fairfax, but it made no request for any of them resign.

“This weekend, we will all be speaking with our constituents about their thoughts on how we best move forward as a Commonwealth, past these difficult days and toward a place of healing,” the statement said.

“The big problem is so many Democrats and Republicans rushed in to say he should resign that now they’re kind of trapped, even at the national level, behind their own words,” Nordlinger said.

If Northam wants to stay in office, though, state lawmakers admit they have little power to force him to leave. Offensive as the yearbook photos are, they are far from grounds for impeachment under the state constitution.

Despite allegations of hypocrisy, Democrats are feeling little pressure to act against Northam and Herring from Virginia Republicans, whose 2017 gubernatorial candidate and 2018 Senate candidate both were accused of running racist campaigns focused on immigrant crime and protecting Confederate statues.

If he stays, it remains unclear how long this issue would taint Northam’s governorship, and Democrats have expressed some skepticism about his ability to win back the public’s trust. There has been talk of Northam leaving the Democratic Party and governing as an independent, but Nordlinger sees no incentive at this point for him to make that effort.

“Do you really want to give up the governorship of a swing state going into the 2020 presidential election? That is not a great option for the Democrats,” he said.

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