RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam consulted with top administration officials Monday about whether he should stay in office or resign amid an uproar over a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page.
Practically all of the state’s Democratic establishment — and Republican leaders, too — turned against the 59-year-old Democrat after the picture surfaced of someone in blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
The sense of crisis deepened as the official next in line to be governor, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, denied an uncorroborated allegation of sexual misconduct first reported by a conservative website. Fairfax told reporters that the 2004 encounter with a woman was consensual, and he called the accusation a “smear.”
Northam stayed out of sight as he met with his Cabinet and senior staff, following a meeting the night before with minority officials in his administration. The governor wanted to hear their assessment of whether it is feasible for him to stay in office, according to a top administration official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The meetings included frank conversations about the difficulties of governing under such circumstances, the person said.
The state government was thrown into confusion by the scandal on what was already one of the legislature’s busiest days of the session, with the House and Senate each seeking to complete legislation to send to the other chamber.
Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said he told Northam that the state cannot afford a prolonged period of uncertainty over his future. Northam’s office is in the middle of negotiations with GOP lawmakers over a major tax overhaul and changes to the state budget. The Republican Party controls both houses of the legislature.
“One way or the other, it needs to be resolved,” Layne said.
The furor over the picture erupted on Friday, when Northam first admitted he was in the picture without saying which costume he was wearing, and apologized. But a day later, he denied he was in the photo, while also acknowledging he once put on blackface to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest decades ago.
The scandal threatens to cripple Northam’s ability to govern. In another sign Monday of the challenges he could face if he tries to stay in office, Katherine Rowe, president of the College of William & Mary, canceled an appearance by Northam at an event this Friday because his presence would “fundamentally disrupt the sense of campus unity we aspire to.”
Northam, who is one year into his four-year term, has also lost the support of many declared and potential Democratic presidential candidates.
The state’s Republican House speaker said there is “a rightful hesitation” among lawmakers to seek Northam’s impeachment or removal, and they are hoping he steps down instead.
“Obviously on impeachment, that’s a very high standard,” Speaker Kirk Cox said. “And so I think that’s why I think we have called for the resignation. We hope that’s what the governor does. I think that would obviously be less pain for everyone.”
If Northam does resign, Fairfax will become the second African-American governor in Virginia history.
Referring to the allegation against him, Fairfax said he was not surprised it came at a critical time for the office of governor: “It’s at that point that they come out with the attacks and the smears. It is unfortunate. It really is, but it’s sadly a part of our politics now.”
The Associated Press is not reporting the details of the accusation because AP has not been able to corroborate it. 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 Post said the woman had not told anyone about it, the account could not be corroborated, Fairfax denied it, and the Post was unable to find other similar allegations against him among people who knew him in college, law school or in politics.
The woman did not immediately respond Monday to a voicemail, text message or email from an AP reporter.
The allegations were first reported by Big League Politics, the news outlet that first published the yearbook image.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist who came to politics late in life, spent years courting the black community in the run-up to his 2017 race for governor.
He recently came under fire from Republicans who have accused him of backing infanticide after he said he supported a bill loosening restrictions on late-term abortions.
Late last month, Florida’s secretary of state resigned after photos from a 2005 Halloween party showed him in blackface while dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim.
Associated Press writer Ben Finley contributed to this report.