Northam makes first N. Va. appearance since blackface scandal broke

For the first time in about two months, embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam made an official public appearance in Northern Virginia Tuesday.

Nine Democratic legislators stood by Northam in Alexandria’s brisk-but-sunny Market Square as he announced an amendment — to be taken up by the General Assembly next week — that would ban handheld cellphone use while driving in Virginia.

Northam is aiming to get back to normal and lead the state forward despite an admission that he once wore blackface in a 1980s dance contest. That admission was made after revelations of a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page.

Since that news conference, he has remained largely behind closed doors, meeting with staff, legislators and people he describes as community leaders so that he can listen and learn.

“We have done good work and we will continue to do good work over the next three years. Obviously, we’re going to refocus a bit. … We have a lot of inequity still in Virginia,” he added.

Northam promised to emphasize access to health care, education, jobs and the ballot box.

“I really think we’re in a good position. There is a level of awareness regarding race and equity right now in Virginia that we have never seen — that I have never seen in my lifetime — and I’m going to do everything along with my cabinet, along with my agencies, to really bring some good from the events that happened six weeks ago,” Northam said.

He is not going anywhere.

“The more I know, the more I’ll do, but I want to remind people … that I was elected to be governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia; I think we had a great first year, and I want to continue to do that work for Virginia,” Northam said. “That’s why I was elected, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”

Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw, of Fairfax County, is glad Northam is trying to get back to normal — even on a still-limited public schedule — and acting like a governor again.

“He’s getting out and around, which is what he needs to do, so I think he’ll be fine,” Saslaw said.

“Remember, this happened 35 years ago, and while those pictures were extremely distasteful — no question about that — and demeaning, you’ve got to look at Ralph’s life over the last 35 years, which has been pretty exemplary.”

“Everybody says people deserve a second chance, particularly some of the people who essentially wanted him lined up and shot, but his life since then has been pretty exemplary,” he added.

Saslaw does not believe the scandal permanently damages Northam’s effectiveness over the rest of his term.

“He’s still signing and amending bills. … Did it take a hit? Sure, but it’ll recover,” Saslaw said.

“I don’t turn on people who are my friends at the first bit of adversity. This happened 35 years ago, — and, like I said, distasteful and demeaning as can be. But let’s just get on with it. He’s got a state to run, and as legislators we got a job to do and we need to do it,” Saslaw said.

Both Saslaw and Sen. Jennifer Boysko also do not believe the scandals surrounding the state’s top three leaders — all Democrats — will affect the 140 General Assembly races on the ballot this fall. They remain confident Democrats can flip the two seats needed in each chamber to take control.

“I have heard nothing but ‘Let’s move forward,’ ‘Let’s keep working together’ from my constituents and from the people who really are following public policy here in the Northern Virginia area,” Boysko said.

She is happy with Northam’s effort to move forward.

“We are the party of forgiveness and second chances. He has lived his adult life with grace and dignity helping other people. That’s what I look at,” she said.

Still, Republicans continue to bring up the blackface admissions of Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring and the two sexual assault accusations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.

“The lieutenant governor is dealing with some issues, as is our attorney general, and I think the truth needs to be told,” Northam said Tuesday.

“I support him and Attorney General Herring. Again, we were elected in 2017 to do the job of Virginia, and they’re doing their job, as am I. And we’ll continue to do that,” Northam said.

House Republicans promised a hearing on the accusations against Fairfax, which are tied to incidents out of state well before he took office, but have not provided any details. House Democrats had sought a bipartisan committee.

Saslaw described the issue of the blackface admissions by Northam and Herring as something “fading pretty quickly,” but said he considers the Fairfax situation to be different.

WTOP’s Max Smith reported from Alexandria, Virginia.

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