A sentence I never thought I would write: “The governor insisted he had worn neither Klan robes nor blackface but had ‘darkened’ his face with shoe polish to resemble Michael Jackson in a San Antonio dancing contest, which he added that he had won with his moonwalking skills.” This sequence of events raises many questions, including whether we’re living in a Tom Wolfe novel or a Christopher Buckley novel.
Yesterday’s jaw-dropping, bizarre, self-destructive press conference by Virginia governor Ralph Northam also raises the question of whether a unified force of just about every other elected official in the state can force his resignation.
To sum up, Northam insisted he had never seen the photo before Friday, that he was neither figure in the photo, that his initial apology on Friday night about “the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now” was inaccurate, that he only realized he was not in the photo after he “reflected with ‘his family and classmates from the time,” that refusing to resign was the honorable choice because stepping down would “duck my responsibility to reconcile,” that he had no idea how he got the nickname “Coon-man,” that he “dressed up in a — what’s his name, the singer — Michael Jackson,” and that at the dance contest in San Antonio, Northam “had the shoes, I had a glove, and I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks. And the reason I used a very little bit is because, I don’t know if anybody has ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off. But it was a dance contest. I had always liked Michael Jackson. I actually won the contest because I had learned how to do the moonwalk,” and that he only realized that darkening his face with shoe polish could be considered offensive during a conversation with a campaign aide during the 2017 campaign.
It was a tour-de-force of evasive answers, implausible explanations, and cloddish tone-deaf rationalizations. After that performance, not only would most Virginians no longer trust Northam with the governorship, they presumably wouldn’t trust him with a set of matches.
If the governor continues to refuse to resign, the state legislature could attempt to impeach him, but the state constitution allows impeachment for crimes “against the Commonwealth by malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crimes or misdemeanor.’” Lawyers and scholars may dispute whether offensive actions in 1984 and implausible explanations rise to that level.
There’s another avenue for removal, if the attorney general, the state senate president and the speaker of the House of Delegates or a majority of the general assembly could declare the governor is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” If Northam refused to leave, a vote of three quarters in both the state assembly and state senate could remove him. Considering the near-universal condemnation of Northam from Virginia lawmakers, this scenario is plausible.
No Virginia governor has ever been impeached or removed from office for being unable to perform his duties. Virginia Democrats would probably like to see the albatross of Northam disposed with as quickly as possible. In November, all 40 State Senate seats and all 100 House of Delegate seats are up for election.