What’s the Point of Ralph Northam Anymore?

Ralph Northam, Democratic governor of Virginia.
Ralph Northam, Democratic governor of Virginia. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Back in February, the survival of Democratic governance in Virginia seemed in peril. Governor Ralph Northam first admitted to and then denied appearing in a 1984 medical-school yearbook photo depicting two costumed men — one in blackface, one in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. He explained his confusion with an equally damning confession: that he’d mixed up the picture with another time he’d worn blackface that same year. (He’d darkened his complexion with shoe polish to impersonate Michael Jackson at a dance competition, he explained.) The stakes of his potential resignation — which was encouraged by a slew of national Democrats, including Joe Biden — were heightened when it was revealed that Northam’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, had been accused of multiple sexual assaults and his attorney general, Mark Herring, admitted to attending a party in blackface in 1980.

Had these scandals prompted all three men to resign, Republicans would’ve been awarded governorship of the state by default. (The rules of succession in Virginia hold that if the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general are unable to perform their governing duties, the Speaker of the House of Delegates takes over — in this case, Republican Kirk Cox.) But that didn’t happen. Instead, Northam weathered the storm, foremost because of the support, tacit and explicit, of black Virginians in the statehouse and the electorate. According to a Washington Post poll, 60 percent of black residents thought Northam should remain in office despite having appeared in blackface, a conclusion stemming no doubt from their well-earned fear at the possibility of GOP rule and its attendant hostility toward black civil rights.

But as I’ve written before, black Virginians’ power to hold Northam to a legislative agenda that advanced racial justice — if only to show gratitude for their support — was always limited. Democrats across the country benefit from knowing that nonwhite people have no serious alternative to them in the current two-party system. Northam promised to reorient his gubernatorial mission to prioritize these issues anyway, meeting with black legislators about how to support their agendas and announcing a “listening tour” to “engage different communities in conversations about race.” And as a rhetorical device, it seems to have worked: No critical mass of Virginians committed to his ouster, and black Virginians appear to have settled for the security of being spared Republican governance, if with little enthusiasm for Northam himself. “I’m not gonna really grade the picture that much because I know … white people. It’s not a new thing,” David Wright, a black Army veteran and Virginian, told CNN of the governor’s transgressions.

But Northam’s recent conduct has cast doubt on whether this uneasy peace is sustainable and raises questions about how much longer black voters will feel compelled to settle for his ilk. On Monday — less than a month after Democrats recaptured the General Assembly, ushering in a united Democratic government in Virginia for the first time in 26 years — Northam assured his revenue advisory council that he doesn’t support repealing the state’s so-called “right-to-work” law and thereby empowering a dwindling labor movement. “I can’t foresee Virginia taking actions [that would include such an effort],” he told the group of business leaders, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This was music to their ears. The aim of right-to-work laws is — and has been since their advent in the 1940s — to debilitate labor unions by cutting off vital streams of revenue.

Unions rely on dues from members to fund their work, which includes advocating for desirable labor conditions, higher wages, and other protections in disputes between workers and employers. As such, many union contracts compel workers hired into unionized workplaces to join them as paying members, the rationale being that even those who aren’t ardent union supporters will still enjoy the bounties of union representation. If left unfunded, unions would fold and expose workers to the often-exploitative devices of their employers. Knowing this, many business interests — backed most often legislatively by Republicans but by some Democrats as well — have advocated successfully for state laws, cast as protecting the “right to work” without having to join a union, that prohibit agreements between unions and employers that would require workers to join a union as a condition of receiving union benefits.

These laws have been costly not just for workers but for the Democratic Party and American democracy in general. Virginia’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Northam has said it needs to go up, but he won’t clarify when or by how much. And as my colleague Eric Levitz has argued, unions have traditionally served as key channels for workers to take control of their economic prospects, boosting wages, fostering organizing, and increasing voter turnout on behalf of causes that further their material interests rather than inflame their prejudices — which has traditionally led to electoral victories for Democrats. In other words, Northam and his soon-to-be-united government could boost workers’ economic outlooks and his party’s own electoral fortunes at the same time. That he has chosen to court business interests instead is a gift to CEOs and Republicans seeking to preserve their waning influence.

The black voters who chose graciously not to mobilize against Northam after his blackface scandal don’t want Republicans running the state of Virginia. Yet Northam’s refusal to protect unions is a surefire way to ensure that wages stay low, workers go comparatively unprotected, and — if recent research is any indication — voter turnout underwhelms, fewer working-class candidates run for office, and moneyed interests are prioritized to the detriment of others, all of which helps the GOP stay relevant and, should it regain power, continue its campaign of voter suppression and racist gerrymanders fairly unhindered. If the knocks against Republicans include that they’re flagrant bigots and hostile to the interests of working people, the Democratic governor in blackface who supports right-to-work laws doesn’t feel like the boldest swing in the other direction. Northam may be what black voters had to settle for with GOP rule looming at the end of a rapidly deteriorating chain of succession. But with Virginia in blue hands for the foreseeable future, it stands to reason that demanding better could bear real fruit.

What’s the point of Ralph Northam anymore?