Virginia’s Executive Branch Is in Shambles

A protester outside the Virginia state capitol on Monday. Photo: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images

As Monday afternoon comes to a close, Ralph Northam remains the governor of Virginia. But perhaps not for much longer. Though he now insists he did not appear in a Klan robe or in blackface in photos that appear in his medical school yearbook, he admitted to wearing blackface on a different occasion, as part of a Michael Jackson costume, during a bizarre press conference. (His wife audibly dissuaded him from demonstrating the moonwalk for reporters.) Northam has lost the support of his party and the Democratic Governors Association. Now, according to CNN’s Ryan Nobles, members of the governor’s cabinet are considering their next steps:

In theory, Justin Fairfax, the state’s lieutenant governor, should take over from Northam. But on Sunday evening, the same right-wing website that first reported the Northam yearbook photos reported a claim of sexual assault against Fairfax, who denies it. The Washington Post previously investigated the claim and was unable to corroborate it, but that does not necessarily mean that the claim is false, and it jeopardizes Fairfax’s potential succession. If Northam and Fairfax both resign, then the next person in the line of succession is Mark Herring. Herring is Virginia’s attorney general, and had already planned to run for governor in 2021, setting up a potential future showdown with Fairfax. For his part, Fairfax has denounced the claim as “a smear,” and appeared to suggest that it had been leaked by Northam’s office. The New York Times reported on Monday:

“Does anybody think it’s any coincidence that on the eve of potentially my being elevated that that’s when this uncorroborated smear comes out?” Mr. Fairfax told reporters surrounding him in the rotunda of the state capitol about whether he believes Mr. Northam, a fellow Democrat, was behind the accusation coming to light. He offered no evidence tying the Northam camp to the allegation.

On Monday evening, Fairfax reportedly eased up his accusations toward Northam, pointing his ire toward Richmond mayor and potential 2021 primary rival Levar Stoney. According to the Times, Fairfax praised “the acumen of a reporter who inquired whether Mr. Stoney might have been responsible.” (Mayor Stoney responded, saying that the insinuation “is 100 percent not true, and frankly it’s offensive.”)

On Twitter, Northam’s spokesperson denied that the governor was responsible for leaking the story to the press:

In Virginia, elections for lieutenant governor and for governor are conducted separately, and Northam and Fairfax did not run as part of the same ticket. There are long-standing rumors of friction between the governor, who is a centrist, and Fairfax, who leans more to the left. As I previously wrote for Intelligencer, the Northam campaign approved a mailer for the Laborers’ International Union of North America that featured every Democratic candidate for statewide office but Fairfax, who opposed two natural gas pipelines that LIUNA supports. Because Fairfax was the only African-American candidate for statewide office, his omission provoked controversy. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported at the time, L. Douglas Wilder, the only African-American to serve as Virginia’s governor, criticized both the mailer and a separate, 2016 incident “in which state Democratic Party officials denied Fairfax a speaking slot at the state Democratic convention.”

Fairfax’s career may be on the rocks, but Northam’s approval ratings have plummeted. According to Morning Consult, only 50 percent of Virginia’s Democratic voters now say they approve of the governor, a drop of 20 points from last month. His overall approval rating has dropped to 29 percent from 48 percent last month. Northam has quickly burned through whatever popularity he earned for getting Medicaid expansion through the General Assembly. Northam’s downfall isn’t just bad news for him. It puts the state Democratic party’s electoral prospects in danger, too — and Justin Fairfax may no longer be able to salvage its reputation.

This post has been updated to include additional comments from Justin Fairfax.

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