Virginia’s highest office frozen as Northam weighs next move

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s office put much of the business of governing on hold Tuesday as the Democrat privately weighed whether he can stay in the job despite the uproar over a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page.

While Northam himself gave no public indication of which way he was leaning, a close friend, Republican state Sen. Richard Stuart, said he is convinced the governor won’t resign. He said Northam told him he felt a responsibility to stay in office and make amends.

Northam was conferring with top advisers about whether he can govern effectively in light of the turmoil over the photo, which depicts someone in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. The picture, which surfaced Friday, set off a barrage of calls from his own party for his resignation.

In the meantime, negotiations between the governor’s office and the Republicans who run the legislature were suspended on what was otherwise one of the busiest days on the legislative calendar. Northam wasn’t making any of the public appearances he does almost every weekday. The regular economic development announcement emails have stopped.

With uncertainty hanging over state government, former allies were growing impatient.

State Sen. Louise Lucas, a prominent African-American lawmaker who has pressed for Northam to step down, said the governor doesn’t need to take a few more days to make up his mind.

“I am so praying that he will do that and get it behind us,” Lucas said. “What’s a little bit more of time going to do for us?”

In another sign of the difficulty he faces in carrying out his duties, Northam issued a statement Tuesday offering condolences on the killing of a state trooper in a shootout, only to be met with a flurry of Twitter comments urging him to resign.

Stuart, a GOP conservative who gave a floor speech honoring the life of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee earlier this year, said he spoke to Northam on Tuesday.

“No question in my mind,” said Stuart, who came into the Senate with Northam in 2008 and has gone fishing with him. “I firmly believe he is going to do what is right and face this head-on.”

Northam’s office is in the middle of negotiations with the legislature over a major tax overhaul and changes to the state budget. Tuesday was “crossover day,” when the House and Senate must finish bills to send to the other chamber.

The crisis deepened when the man next in line to be governor, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, was confronted with an uncorroborated allegation of sexual misconduct first reported by a conservative website. Fairfax denied the allegation Monday and called it a political smear, saying the 2004 encounter with a woman was consensual.

The woman has retained Washington law firm Katz Marshall & Banks and is consulting with it about her next steps, said a person close to the legal team who was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

One of the firm’s founding partners, Debra Katz, represented Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her decades ago when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh denied the allegation and was confirmed to the court.

The Associated Press is not reporting the details of the Fairfax accusation because AP has not been able to corroborate it.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist who graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School and came to politics late in life, is one year into his four-year term. If Northam resigns, Fairfax will become the second black governor in Virginia history.

The governor admitted at first that he was in the photo without saying which costume he was wearing. A day later, he denied he was in the picture. But he acknowledged he once used shoe polish to blacken his face and look like Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas decades ago.

As for the allegations against the lieutenant governor, The Washington Post said Monday that it was approached by the woman in 2017 and carefully investigated but never published a story for lack of any independent evidence.

The woman did not immediately respond to a voicemail, text message or email from an AP reporter.


Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Washington and Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, contributed to this report.