In a few months we’ll be coming upon the 400 year anniversary of two separate events in Virginian and American history. We’ll be celebrating the 400th anniversary of our General Assembly, the oldest continuous legislative body established in the New World. A month later, Virginia will be remembering the 400th anniversary of the forced arrival of first Africans to the New World, which of course lead to second class treatment and enslavement of an entire race for last the four centuries.
That’s our history. And now, our present has seen quite the controversy with race and now our executive body. Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last several days, you know that Governor Ralph Northam was said to be in his 1984 yearbook in a picture of a person in blackface next to another in a Klu Klux Klan costume. The Governor would go on to apologize for being in the photo(never confirming who he is), only to call backsies the following day as most prominent Democrats in the nation asking him to resign, which he adamantly defied. To make matters worse, during the press conference where he made his declarative mind-change, he emphasized that, after asking other classmates about whether it was him, he emphatically remembered that it wasn’t him and he would have remembered if it was him and that he knew it wasn’t him because he actually remembered the last time he was in blackface and that wasn’t that time. And, after this press conference, which also included a near attempt at moonwalking, any Democrat left that further mulled on his resignation were given no more doubt.
And again, despite calls for his resignation, for several days now, the Governor has refused. In the meantime, even if he resigns, his replacement, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, has found himself in the mist of a sexual assault allegation that is causing some to question him and his integrity. He, of course, denies it, claiming it was consensual. His claim is augmented by the Washington Post’s refusal to run with the claim when it was brought to them over a year ago. However, very much unlike Northam, Justin Fairfax is far ahead of what has befell him.
That said, I’m not writing this to rehash and re-litigate what Ralph Northam has done(or not done according to him). However, there are some things that have to be said that are being forgotten.
We need to be clear about some things. First and foremost, Ralph Northam needs to resign. If he was wearing blackface the same year a black man was making a viable shot at a major party nomination, his ignorance cannot be over looked. If he was dressed as a klansman the first year Martin Luther King Jr. Day was an actual thing, we can’t just accept that. Perhaps he is telling the truth and he is not in the picture and it was placed under his name by accident. That does nothing to clean up his apology and admission, then his retraction, then his defense of his retraction with another admission to using blackface, which was baffingly given with a lot more information about blackface application that anyone should have, which was followed up by his desire to dance during the worst moment of his political life.
Ralph Northam has put Virginia in a very bad light and he has lost the confidence of all elected officials in his leadership being any further effective. He has sparked an outrage in this state and in this nation and dug a hole that he is ill-equipped to dig himself out of. He can no longer faithfully govern and has lost the trust of those who elected him. That much is clear. Unfortunately what is not clear to virtually the entire nation is who Ralph Northam is. Many of those who have worked in Virginia politics for the last decade have worked with and/or along side of Ralph Northam. I am one of those persons. I’ve known him since 2007 when I was hired, in part, to help get him elected to the State Senate. And for as long as I’ve known him, Ralph is probably one of the more ingenuous and honest persons I’ve met. Fairly unassuming and the opposite of what you typically expect from most politicians, this is what most people know of Ralph Northam. Where many Virginians, and Americans have assumed rather a racist past or present inclinations, I cannot assign such a disposition to the man I know. As someone that has known him enough to know the kind of person he is, I’ve given him the benefit of doubt of who he’s thought to be. But that does not mean he should continue to be Governor of Virginia. He can be forgiven. Trust me, as weird and racist as it may sound, I can completely believe that the Ralph Northam I knew could be as much of a country bumpkin to not know any better and think dressing in blackface is humorous and did not mean to offend. But regardless of what he knew then, his behavior now has eviscerated any hope for redemption as governor. He can move pass this and resuscitate his reputation. But that has nothing to do with him being in office to do that.
And it’s this conflict of who Ralph Northam has been for the last 12 years is the true problem that is being ignored. First, working in politics, everyone knows coming into any election, every candidate has to know everything that can be said or claimed about them, good or bad. Any responsible and able campaigner will want to have this information to be able to control any damage done to their candidate and their campaign. This clearly had not been adequately done in the 12 years of Ralph Northam’s public life. But the more egregious errors of this case are not the ones 12 years ago or even 35 years ago. It is the ones that have been made since these pictures were made public. Could Ralph Northam have survived the outing of his personal history? Possibly, if it indeed was not him and if there was no corroboration. But this was the most literal interpretation of Murphy’s Law I’ve ever seen in politics. It makes Mark Sanford’s Appalachian Trail fiasco look like the Gettysburg Address. Everything about it went wrong. Even the wrongs that went wrong, they went wrong too.
Ralph Northam should have known that this picture existed. He didn’t. Ralph Northam should have told the whole truth about this picture when it was uncovered. He didn’t. Ralph Northam should have given a simple denial if it’s his assertion that it wasn’t him. He didn’t. Ralph Northam should have resigned once the fallout from this picture was made clear. He did not. More than this, those around him should have known about this picture. They should have made sure he told the whole truth about the picture. They should have given him a simple denial. And most importantly, they should have convinced him to resign. But the only reason he has given for his refuse to resign is that doing so would be admission that he is indeed a racist. As if one has something to do with the other.
Sadly, in this, as with his press conference and his earlier admission to his actions 35 years ago, he is completely wrong about this. The problem is 35 years ago, his judgement was his alone. However, as an elected official, you are hardly making decisions on your own. Because in politics, it’s much like standing trial, where “only a fool would have himself as a client.” It is rather basic knowledge that it’s best to have an outside perspective to assist in seeing blindspots and weaknesses that you may not see or don’t think to see. And if Ralph Northam is advising himself to not resign so he not be labeled a racist for the rest of his life, he is being advised badly by himself and by those around him who should be telling him that his not being a racist is not contingent on his being in office. And if he is being advised that his resignation will be a admission of racism, then he is being advised badly by those around him who have convinced him to resist what he has to know. Either way, this has been handled in the worse possible way. Someone is rather not doing their job or doing a really bad job.
Whether Ralph Northam is a racist is rather moot at this moment. But his continued linkage to his office with what’s in his heart has damaged him, just as it’s damaged many elected officials before him, far more than he’s prepared to accept. Ralph Northam has lost the confidence in his ability to continue in office. That is not due to him being a racist. It’s due to his inability to control his own political misfortunes. He is conflating “not being governor” with “being racist” and by virtue “being governor” with “not being racist” and his perception of this status is just flat wrong. And the Ralph Northam I know, the Ralph Northam we all saw and lampooned at his rather bizarre press conference, it’s actually possible that he does not know how wrong it is. But those around him, those advising him, they don’t get the benefit of doubt he has. They have to know he BOTH can’t be in office and can prove to not be a racist. If they’re not telling him that they’re not doing their job. If he’s not listening, then they need to be removed for someone who can make him listen.
Ralph Northam needs to resign immediately. But not before those who have advised him to this point. They should have been gone days ago.
By Summer, where this nation will highlight some extremely significant history, rather Ralph Northam or Justin Fairfax will be Governor of this Commonwealth. However only one has demonstrated the kind of mandate that is deserving to lead. Tragically, the other seems like the fool who follows.