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Is Northam Next? A Recent History of Governor Resignations

Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam is refusing to leave office after the resurfacing of his yearbook page, which shows one person dressed in blackface and another as a Ku Klux Klan member.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, at podium, gestures as his wife, Pam, listens during a press conference on Saturday.
(AP/Steve Helber)
Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam refused to step down over the weekend despite nearly universal calls for his resignation from top officials in his own party. 

The controversy began late last week when Northam's medical school yearbook page resurfaced, showing one person dressed in blackface and another as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. After initially apologizing for appearing in the photo, Northam backtracked and said he does not believe he is one of the people in it. He did, however, admit to donning blackface at least once as a young man -- for a Michael Jackson contest in 1984.

Few governors resign their office, in comparison with members of Congress. Those who do often resist resignation calls from political enemies and former allies for days or even months.

Usually, it's scandals involving sex -- not racism -- that force governors to give up their post. From Thomas Jefferson having children with his slave Sally Hemings to Bill Clinton's impeachment in a sex and perjury case, political sex scandals have been a recurring feature of American life for centuries.

Some governors caught in sex scandals have served out the remainder of their terms, including South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford and Kentucky Democrat Paul Patton. But sex has been at the root of most gubernatorial resignations over the past 20 years (not counting governors who have left office to take other political offices).

Here's a look back at that history, starting with the most recent resignations:


Missouri Republican Eric Greitens

Greitens stepped down last May, after facing felony indictments and several months of controversy regarding allegations that he had taken a nude picture of his mistress and distributed it without her consent. Greitens also faced complaints regarding campaign finance abuses. As part of a settlement with the St. Louis prosecutor, Greitens resigned in June, and his lawyers agreed there had been enough evidence to justify filing the charge regarding the distribution of the photograph. In July, Missouri state Rep. Jay Barnes, who led an investigation of the governor, filed a complaint with the state ethics commission about a group associated with Greitens that had been used to evade campaign finance limits and disclosure requirements. No action has been taken.


Alabama Republican Robert Bentley

Bentley agreed in 2017 to a plea deal that included his resignation and an admission of guilt regarding campaign finance violations. Bentley had been engulfed in controversy for more than a year after transcripts and tapes were released documenting his interactions with Rebekah Mason, a former aide with whom Bentley allegedly had an affair.


Oregon Democrat John Kitzhaber

Kitzhaber stepped down in 2015, just three months after winning a fourth term. Kitzhaber was under criminal investigation for complaints that his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, may have violated the law or ethics rules by advising him on energy issues while accepting fees as a private consultant on overlapping policies. Federal investigators dropped their case against Kitzhaber in 2017, without filing charges. Last March, Kitzhaber paid $20,000 as part of a settlement with the state ethics commission, agreeing not to question its findings that he had repeatedly violated ethics laws, misusing his office for personal gain and failing to disclose conflicts of interest. 


Alaska Republican Sarah Palin 

Palin's resignation, coming less than a year after her candidacy for vice president in 2008, came as a surprise. She had faced ethics complaints regarding her dismissal of the state's top public safety official in a dispute over her desire to see her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper. Palin cited her legal expenses in her resignation speech, saying she had to clear her name from "frivolous" complaints. She said she wanted to spare the state having a governor operating under "lame-duck status."


New York Democrat Eliot Spitzer

Spitzer announced his resignation in 2008, two days after The New York Times broke the story that he had been the client of a high-end prostitution ring. “Over the course of my public life, I have insisted, I believe correctly,  that people regardless of their position or power take responsibility for their conduct,” the former state attorney general said. “I can and will ask no less of myself. For this reason, I am resigning from the office of governor.”


New Jersey Democrat James McGreevey

McGreevey announced his resignation in 2004, admitting to an affair with Golan Cipel, his homeland security adviser who threatened to file a sexual harassment suit against him. McGreevey said it was a consensual relationship. "My truth is that I am a gay American," McGreevey said.


Connecticut Republican John Rowland

Rowland resigned in 2004, facing an impeachment investigation and a federal corruption probe regarding his relationships with state contractors. Rowland had accepted work done by state contractors for no charge, among other bribery complaints. By the end of the year, Rowland pleaded guilty to corruption. In 2014, Rowland was convicted separately on election fraud charges.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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