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As crisis in Va. government deepens, could Northam hang on?

With ‘blackface’ scandal spreading to the attorney general, and the lieutenant governor facing a sexual assault accusation, it’s unclear who could step in to replace the embattled governor.

Aaron P. Bernstein/AP/File
Virginia Governor Elect Ralph Northam (c.) celebrates with Lt. Governor Elect Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring at his election night rally on the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Nov. 7, 2017.

What is going on in Virginia? The state’s government has been in crisis ever since that now-infamous picture surfaced from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page – showing one man in blackface and another in KKK garb. At first, Governor Northam apologized for the photo. Then, amid an avalanche of calls to resign, he changed course and said it wasn’t actually him.

Northam is now refusing to step down. Complicating matters for state Democrats, Lt Gov. Justin Fairfax, who had been poised to succeed Northam, has been accused of sexually assaulting a woman 15 years ago. (He denies the charge, saying the encounter was consensual.)  

And today, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who’s third in line for the governorship, admitted that he once dressed in blackface in college in the 1980s. 

Initially, it seemed doubtful that Northam could survive the overwhelming number of calls for his resignation. As The Washington Post’s Matt Viser put it, the push reflected the Democratic Party’s new “zero-tolerance policy” on transgressions involving race or sex – since “purity” on those issues is seen as necessary to draw a sharp contrast with President Trump.

But without a clear replacement for Democrats to unite behind – and as the initial surge of outrage inevitably subsides somewhat – Northam’s chances of hanging on may be ticking up.

While the history of blackface is undoubtedly “toxic,” Northam’s expressions of remorse – and, more importantly, his public record on race over the past 35 years – should entitle him to a second chance, writes The Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn. “If a month from now it still looks as if he can’t be an effective governor or if the bill of particulars against him has grown, then yes, he should quit,” he argues. “But not yet.”

Monitor reporter Jessica Mendoza has gone to Richmond to see what the story looks like from there. Be sure to look for her piece later in the week.

As always, let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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