Today is the final day in office for Gov. Ralph "Coonman" Northam (D., Va.). The controversial Democrat recently unveiled his official portrait that will hang in the state capitol for posterity. Alas, it will not be the image everyone remembers when they hear his name.
Nearly two years have passed since a Washington Free Beacon alum unearthed a photo from Northam's medical school yearbook page of an individual wearing blackface who is posing next to an individual wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. The governor immediately acknowledged appearing in the photo and apologized for his racist shenanigans.
"Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive," Northam said in a statement on Feb. 1, 2019. "I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now."
Many assumed the scandal would end Northam's career. Within days, nearly every prominent Democrat demanded his resignation. "Leaders are called to a higher standard, and the stain of racism should have no place in the halls of government," wrote then-presidential candidate Kamala Harris. "The Governor of Virginia should step aside so the public can heal and move forward together."
Joe Biden concurred, arguing that Northam "has lost all moral authority and should resign immediately." Justin Fairfax (D.), the state's African-American lieutenant governor, was "the leader Virginia needs now," Biden wrote. (He was not.)
Northam refused to step down and proceeded to walk back his admission that he appeared in the racist photo. "I believe then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo," he said at a press conference. "I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe." (They would.)
It only got weirder from there. "While I did not appear in this photo, I am not surprised by its appearance in the [Eastern Virginia Medical School] yearbook," Northam said before admitting to darkening his face that same year "as part of a Michael Jackson costume" in a dance contest in San Antonio. Asked if he could still perform Jackson's signature "moonwalk" dance move, Northam appeared willing to demonstrate his skills in front of reporters before being shot down by his wife, who told him it would be "inappropriate" given the circumstances.
Days later, the aforementioned Fairfax, who would have succeeded Northam in the event of the governor's resignation, was credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women. Doing what comes naturally, Fairfax suggested the women were lying and refused to resign after prominent Democrats urged him to step down as well.
The state's third-ranking Democrat, Attorney General Mark Herring, then admitted to wearing blackface at a party in 1980. Herring would have been next in line to become governor if both Northam and Fairfax resigned. If all three scandal-plagued Democrats resigned, however, the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, would become governor.
All of a sudden, Democrats were less adamant that Northam should lose his job over some playful racism. The governor was instantly emboldened to stay in power. "Right now, Virginia needs someone that can heal. There's no better person to do that than a doctor," he said during an interview with Gayle King of CBS News. "Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage, and who has a moral compass. And that's why I am not going anywhere."
Media outlets quickly lost interest in the scandal. The Washington Post, for example, called on Northam to resign on Feb. 6, 2019. The paper panned his "shifting and credulity-shredding explanations for the racist photograph" and argued that "his governorship has been irredeemably wrecked by the self-inflicted, racially callous, and clueless mess he has made in recent days."
By the end of the year, the Post declared the "irredeemably wrecked" governor to be thoroughly redeemed while acknowledging that "the question of who is in the [racist yearbook] photo, if it is not Mr. Northam, remains unanswered." Without seriously addressing the concerns raised in their previous call for his resignation, the paper's editors congratulated the governor on his "hard-earned" comeback and his ability to express "what many Virginians regard as genuine humility."
Only a Democrat could have done what Northam did. More specifically, only a Democrat whose resignation might have resulted in a Republican taking power could have survived such a ridiculous racism scandal. Northam was not eligible for reelection in 2021, but Virginia voters ultimately decided to embrace racial inclusion by electing Glenn Youngkin and the historically diverse Republican ticket.
Days before Youngkin was sworn in, Northam revealed that he was "99 percent sure" about the identity of the man wearing blackface in the scandalous photo that almost ended his career, but declined to provide additional details, such as wether he was able to identify the man in the Ku Klux Klan robe.