When a racist photo was discovered on Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page in February, he became an instant pariah among fellow Democrats. A political death watch took shape as the governor used underground tunnels at the Capitol to stay out of sight.
Now, nine months later, Northam is standing front and center on the campaign trail as he stumps for Democrats who once called for him to resign.
Like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who was recently reelected in a stronger-than-expected showing after pictures of him in blackface surfaced — Northam has proven resilient to what many thought was a fatal scandal.
On Saturday morning, he was at a campaign canvass kickoff in Virginia Beach exhorting supporters to help Democrats flip control of the state legislature and send a message about the state’s values.
“We live in a very diverse society, and that’s a good thing,” Northam said. “It’s who we are. We’re going to be inclusive. We’re going to welcome people to Virginia.”
Northam drew repeated applause and laughter at a home packed with campaign volunteers, some of whom came from San Francisco to help Democrats win. Virginia is the only state having legislative elections this year where partisan control of the statehouse is up for grabs.
For several Democrats in the room, the yearbook scandal was a long-ago mistake outweighed by the governor’s accomplishments and values. Those include passing Medicaid expansion and helping lure retail giant Amazon to set up a second headquarters in the state. Since the scandal, he’s pledged to focus the rest of his term on addressing long-standing racial inequalities in a state that was home to the capital of the Confederacy and an anti-school integration effort known as Massive Resistance.
“I’m so grateful that Northam didn’t resign,” said Pat Gadzinski, who hosted Saturday’s event at her home. “I feel those were stupid mistakes he made as a kid. I think he’s done great things.”
The people who packed into the house were overwhelmingly white. But some black voters living nearby offered similar perspectives.
Mark Wade, 57, said the yearbook scandal pales in comparison to the drama surrounding the president.
“Everybody’s got issues, everybody’s got devils or demons,” he said. “Especially Trump.”
It was a much different tune in February when there were nearly unanimous calls from within his own party to resign over the yearbook photo that shows someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. He first admitted he was in the picture, and then the next day denied it, but also acknowledged putting on blackface to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest decades ago.
He quickly lost the support of virtually all of the state’s Democratic establishment. Top Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly also urged Northam to step down, as did many Democrats who are now running for president.
The chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus said Northam had been “completely dishonest and disingenuous.”
But Northam was able to hold on, in part because the two Democrats next in line to replace him were soon enveloped in scandal of their own. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused by two women of sexual assault, which he denied. And Attorney General Mark Herring revealed that he’d also worn blackface as a young man.
Northam has since won kudos for his work to address racial disparities in areas including criminal justice and maternal health.
At an August event commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves to arrive in Virginia, Northam delivered a keynote speech where he discussed confronting “painful truths” of his own past. The speech received praise from African Americans.
In the run up to Election Day, the governor and First Lady Pam Northam have been spending their weekends helping fellow Democrats get out the vote and his political action committee has made five-figure donations to candidates in tough races. His PAC also recently launched a digital campaign ad entitled “Courage” that touts his record as governor and asks voters to support candidates who back his agenda.
Northam is not on the ballot this year and isn’t allowed under state law to seek a consecutive term. It’s unlikely he’ll try to continue his political career once he leaves office in 2022, but helping Democrats win control of the statehouse could help him advance his agenda during the next two years.
Republicans have weaponized Northam’s yearbook picture on the campaign trail, often featuring it prominently in attack ads focused on Democratic candidates who once called for Northam to resign but later took money from his PAC.
Garren Shipley, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, said Republicans appreciate the chance to remind voters of the hypocrisy of Democratic candidates.
“We welcome Governor Northam back to the trail,” Shipley said.
Larry Barnett is running for a suburban Richmond House seat and who called for Northam to resign, but now says he’s grateful for the governor’s help. He said GOP attacks involving Northam fall flat because the scandal is “old news.” Barnett said he’s glad Northam didn’t resign.
“It’s good that he didn’t, that he weathered that difficult, humiliating storm,” Barnett said. “He’s actually a very effective governor and is doing a lot to use his own painful experience to bring about good things for Virginians.”