Justin Fairfax and Ralph Northam
Dear Commons Community,
Calls are mounting for the resignation of Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam, a white Democrat whose medical school yearbook page included a photo of people in blackface and in Ku Klux Klan robes. If Gov. Northam resigns, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax is next in line to be governor.
Mr. Fairfax, the second African-American ever to win a statewide election in Virginia, finds himself surrounded once more by the commonwealth’s racial history. Mr. Fairfax, a 39-year-old Democrat who presides over the State Senate as lieutenant governor, a part-time post, has built a reputation as an affable and effective politician who can speak passionately about racial divisions while also appealing to a broad base of voters. As reported in the New York Times:
“Should Mr. Northam resign — and for now, he seems to have no intention of doing so — Mr. Fairfax’s ascendance could help Democrats repair some of the mounting political damage, or at least change the conversation, in time for next year’s presidential election. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont were among the potential Democratic presidential candidates who posted hopefully about the possibility of a Fairfax governorship.
“Governor Northam has lost all moral authority and should resign immediately,” Mr. Biden wrote on Twitter. “Justin Fairfax is the leader Virginia needs now.”
Among Democrats in Virginia, the message about Mr. Fairfax was much the same.
“He’s got charisma; I think he’s got vision; he’s got stick-to-it-iveness,” said Representative A. Donald McEachin, who called Mr. Fairfax’s approach to discussing racial issues “a breath of fresh air” and who urged Mr. Northam to step aside.
In the days since the yearbook photo surfaced on Friday, Mr. Fairfax, who would be the state’s second black governor, has treaded cautiously in the public eye.
Mr. Northam, who at first apologized for the yearbook photo, changed course on Saturday in a strange, lengthy news conference, insisting that he was not either of the people depicted. But even as Mr. Northam resisted calls to resign, he acknowledged having once applied shoe polish to his face to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
After the governor spoke, Mr. Fairfax issued a statement saying that Mr. Northam’s actions “at the very least” indicated “a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping and intimidation.”
“At this critical and defining moment in the history of Virginia and this nation, we need leaders with the ability to unite and help us rise to the better angels of our nature,” Mr. Fairfax said in the statement, which did not call for Mr. Northam’s resignation. A spokeswoman for the lieutenant governor did not respond to a request to interview him.
Mr. Fairfax, a married father of two, grew up in Washington, D.C., in a neighborhood that he described on his campaign website as having shifted “from a close-knit middle-class community to one ravaged by a growing drug epidemic, increasing violence, and dwindling economic opportunities.” He attended Duke University on a scholarship, graduated with a degree in public policy and had a low-level position on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, compiling briefing books for Mr. Gore’s wife, Tipper.
“If he becomes governor, he’ll combine the sunny, inclusive style of President Reagan and the hope and inspiration of President Obama,” Neil H. MacBride, the former United States attorney who hired Mr. Fairfax and assigned him to help lead a sex trafficking task force, said in an email on Saturday.
Mr. Fairfax made his first bid for public office in 2013, running a close second in the Democratic primary for attorney general. He is in the liberal mainstream of the party on most policy issues, from gun control and abortion rights to addressing climate change and raising the minimum wage.
Republicans have been less entranced by Mr. Fairfax over the years — he has been criticized especially for supporting a “Medicare for all” health care system — but few of them seemed eager to speak ill of him on Saturday.
During the 2017 race for lieutenant governor, Mr. Fairfax’s Republican opponent, Jill Holtzman Vogel, said during a debate that he was not informed enough “to talk intelligently” about campaign issues. The National Rifle Association has given him an F rating.
Several Republican state legislators replied to emailed requests for interviews about Mr. Fairfax on Saturday with statements calling on Mr. Northam to resign, or did not immediately respond at all. The Virginia Republican Party, which called for the governor’s resignation, declined to make of any of its leaders available to discuss Mr. Fairfax.
For Democrats, who by Saturday afternoon had mostly abandoned Mr. Northam, the prospect of a Fairfax governorship loomed as a tantalizing alternative to what seemed likely to be months of controversy and unflattering news coverage with Mr. Northam still in office.
Seeking to avoid that, Susan Swecker, the chairwoman of the Virginia Democratic Party, called for Mr. Northam to step down and “let Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax heal Virginia’s wounds and move us forward.”
I think it is only a matter of time before Northam resigns and Fairfax takes over.