Despite Scandals, Virginia Politicians Refuse to Resign. Now What?

If history is any indication, the current controversies will likely change how Ralph Northam governs. He's already made racial reconciliation a new priority.
by | February 13, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam at the funeral of a fallen state trooper. (AP/Steve Helber)

For all the drama that has consumed Virginia over the past two weeks, the political status quo has yet to change. The Democratic governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general have all refused to step down, despite loud calls for their resignations.

Gov. Ralph Northam has stated bluntly that he intends to finish out his term. The controversy surrounding him began when his 1984 medical school yearbook page reemerged, showing two individuals, one dressed in blackface and another as a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Northam has been wounded by the exposure of racism in his past -- his approval ratings are down sharply since the scandal broke. But the bottom hasn't fallen out for him. A Washington Post/Schar School poll released Saturday showed that Commonwealth voters are evenly split on the question of whether he should resign, with 47 percent in favor and 47 opposed.

It's rare for governors to be forced out of office. When they are, the career-ending scandals tend to be rooted in recent events. There isn't really a template for politicians to be kicked out for their behavior in the distant past -- no matter how disturbing. Governors who do survive scandals generally become more aggressive after in pursuing their policy agenda, says Brandon Rottinghaus, author of The Institutional Effects of Executive Scandals.

Governors who survive scandal, he says, place more emphasis on bread-and-butter issues, such as education and children's issues, along with a heightened emphasis on law and order. They also talk more about morality.

"It's kind of an overcorrection," says Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. "If that holds true, we're likely to see Northam not be a wallflower in legislative deliberations."

But now that he's politically wounded, lacking support even from his own party, it's not hard to imagine that Northam will end up getting sidelined if he stays in office.

"The best guess right now is that Northam limps along for the next three years as governor," says Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. "Legislatively, I wouldn't expect much."

Northam hopes to clear his name by making racial reconciliation a focus of his term. He's meeting with black faith and civil rights leaders. His office released a list of black history books he's reading. He pledged to "take a harder line" in favor of removing Confederate monuments.

On Tuesday, Northam announced he was restoring voting rights to nearly 11,000 former felons -- an issue that disproportionately affects black men. It's the continuation of a policy his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, and Northam have pursued, but, given the timing, it is undoubtedly part of his reconciliation effort.

"If you look back over high visibility scandals, you really do see some effort to try to right the wrongs of the past," says Farnsworth. "Most people who face a scandal and survive it politically are going to be immensely careful to behave properly in that area of scandal."

 

Surviving, and Thriving, After Scandal

Last week, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface as a college student. He has apologized profusely for the incident and kept a low public profile in recent days. Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has been accused of sexual assault by two women but maintains his innocence.

If Northam, Fairfax and Herring were all to step down -- a scenario that appears increasingly unlikely -- Republican state House Speaker Kirk Cox would become governor. Instead, the three Democratic statewide officials are engaged in a form of mutually assured destruction, where it's difficult to see how one of them could depart without taking others down with him.

Despite the clamor of calls for them all to resign, it's not unusual for politicians to survive scandals.

Scott Basinger, Rottinghaus' colleague at the University of Houston, published a study in 2012 that looked at 237 scandals involving members of the U.S. House of Representatives between 1973 and 2010. On the whole, they were damaging -- but not political death sentences. Though their reelection rates weren't as high as for the House as a whole, a majority of them ended up winning post-scandal.

"There's a lot of inertia built into the political system," Rottinghaus says. "Most voters are reluctant to turn people out of office."

The most damaging scandals typically involve financial indiscretions, Rottinghaus says. Often, they speak to some issue that can be pinned to larger ethical concerns about the offending politician's party as a whole. If there are already concerns that a state's political culture is corrupt, a politician caught in a bribery or fraud scandal will have a harder time extricating himself.

 

The Scandal Playbook

Some commentators say that Northam's decision to stay in office is emblematic of President Trump's influence on this political moment. Trump has weathered any number of scandals and toughed it out, so other politicians have learned a lesson about survival from him.

Last year, Missouri Republican Gov. Eric Greitens borrowed a phrase that Trump often repeats, complaining that allegations of blackmail and campaign finance violations were part of a "political witch hunt." But Greitens eventually resigned, following two separate indictments.

GOP political consultant David Woodard suggests that Bill Clinton's response to impeachment over lying about extramarital affairs set a template for Mark Sanford, who refused to step down as South Carolina's governor in 2009 after his extramarital affair was exposed.

"For me, the Clinton administration was a landmark experience showing that people want to forgive and accept misbehavior, especially if the accused looks 'wounded' and 'hurt,'" says Woodard, who teaches at Clemson University. "Clinton played it to the hilt, and I think Sanford just followed along."

Sanford survived a scandal that, like the situation in Virginia, dominated national headlines for a time. He served out the remainder of his term and made a comeback in 2013, winning a U.S. House seat (which he lost last year in the GOP primary).

"When the scandal broke, Sanford apologized and went on," Woodard says. "I saw him at conservative GOP fundraisers, and he acted as if nothing was troubling him."

 

Acts of Contrition

Northam is taking a different approach.

He announced Monday that he'll embark on a statewide "listening tour" about race. The governor is ready to face public criticism about the issue, if it means he can keep his job and, as his staff repeatedly says, have a chance to clear his name.

Northam has been asked to resign by his own state party, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, the state's two U.S. senators (who are both former governors) and most other prominent Democrats.

Since he's unwilling to go, however, there's not much they can do about it. The legislature has yet to show any sign that it intends to remove Northam from office.

"Northam has made it very clear that he wants an opportunity for rehabilitation," Farnsworth says. "The yearbook blackface scandal of more than 30 years ago does not seem likely to be viewed as an impeachable offense."

Northam has yet to see a top staffer or cabinet official resign from his office. By contrast, most of Fairfax's staff resigned on Monday. But that same day, Virginia House Democrats backed away from a plan to start impeachment proceedings against the lieutenant governor.

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