Ralph Northam Shows No Plans To Resign
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A couple of months ago, Virginia's Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, had to use an underground tunnel from his executive mansion to his office to avoid the media. The governor faced widespread calls to step down after reports surfaced in February of a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page. Now he's once again appearing in public alongside some of the very lawmakers who called for his resignation. And he's looking forward for his remaining three years in office. WCVE's Ben Paviour has this report from Richmond.
RALPH NORTHAM: Well, good afternoon. I'm Ralph Northam, and thank you all for being with us and...
BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam stopped by a community meeting in Richmond. Northam said he was there to listen, but he also had something to say to three black lawmakers in the room.
NORTHAM: Thank you all for doing what you do. I remind people this is not the easiest time to be in public service, but it's the most important time.
PAVIOUR: Lamont Bagby manages the center where the meeting was held. He took the time to help set up for the governor earlier that afternoon. He's also a Democratic House member and head of the Legislative Black Caucus. That's the same caucus that called the yearbook photo reprehensible and led calls for Northam to resign. I asked Bagby what had changed.
LAMONT BAGBY: At this point, the governor has decided he's not going to step down, and we don't have the luxury of going into our corners and not working with the governor.
PAVIOUR: Northam has now resumed a busy schedule of public speeches and stops around the state. He's been joined by lawmakers from both parties - nearly all of whom called for him to resign. It's a remarkable change from February when he was hardly seen or heard from.
STEPHEN FARNSWORTH: At first, it was hard to imagine that Northam could have done worse.
PAVIOUR: Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington, says Northam's early stumbles fell by the wayside after Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface.
FARNSWORTH: The pressure for Northam to resign basically dissipates when it becomes clear that the alternatives aren't much better.
PAVIOUR: Fairfax is still trying to prove his innocence. He and Herring have mostly stayed out of the public eye. But not everyone is satisfied with Northam either. Jay Johnson is a retiree who sits on the board with Virginia Organizing, a grassroots progressive group.
JAY JOHNSON: But is he going to really do anything else? No, I doubt it. He's going to set up a commission and, you know, whatever and whatever, but that is not really putting himself out there.
PAVIOUR: And as the legislative session drew to a close, Reverend James Kelly of the Virginia chapter of the NAACP reiterated that organization's calls for the governor to step down.
JAMES KELLY: We always need to take into account the sincerity of an apology. In Northam's case, a clear apology followed by his resignation would have been more credible.
PAVIOUR: Instead, Northam's carried on. He's notched several legislative wins since the scandal broke, including an end to the practice of suspending driver's licenses due to unpaid court fines. He says that issue is about equity, a word that's always at the tip of the governor's tongue these days.
NORTHAM: We've had a great first year. We have a little bit less than three years to go, but we'll continue to work on a lot of the issues that we've worked on but certainly refocus on a lot of the race and equity issues as well.
PAVIOUR: It's unclear whether Northam will be a factor in this November's elections - elections Democrats hope to use to take control of the legislature for the first time since 1993. If they pull it off, Northam could find himself with more power than he's ever had before. For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond.
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