‘It Just Went Poof’: The Strange Aftermath of Virginia’s Cascade of Political Scandals

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RICHMOND, Va. — More than a dozen state lawmakers filed onto the stage, summoned by the smiling leader of their state: Ralph S. Northam, the governor of Virginia.

On the governor’s right were a handful of House Democrats, who as a group in February said they were “no longer confident in the governor’s representation of Virginians,” after learning of a shocking racist photo on Mr. Northam’s medical-school yearbook page.

On his left were mostly Republicans, including the speaker of the House, Delegate Kirk Cox, who’d declared that Mr. Northam’s “ability to lead and govern is permanently impaired.”

Some on stage were members of the legislative black caucus, which called the yearbook photo “disgusting, reprehensible, and offensive” and “a complete betrayal.”

Even so, as Mr. Northam took out a pen at the event last week and signed bills to overhaul the state’s foster care system, the lawmakers of both parties stood behind him, grinning and clapping.

This is the strange, suspended state of Virginia politics, just two months after scandal after scandal seemed to be devouring the state’s government from the top down.

In the space of a week in early February, the public was stunned by revelations about each of the three highest statewide elected officials, all Democrats: the racist photo in the governor’s yearbook; accusations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor; and the attorney general’s appearance in blackface at a party in college. Protesters and news crews swarmed the Statehouse. Calls for resignations came from fellow Virginia Democrats, Republicans and even 2020 presidential candidates.

And then? “It just went poof,” said Natalie Draper, a librarian sitting in the back of a coffeehouse last week in Richmond. “It’s like it never happened.”

Virginians have various theories as to how this surreal normalcy set in.

Some say the whole mess was so exhausting and embarrassing that by the time the legislature adjourned on Feb. 24, the outrage had burned itself out. Others point to polls that showed Virginia voters were considerably less hungry for resignations than their representatives were. Some political observers mused about more fundamental changes to the life span of scandal, describing President Trump’s approach to bad press as if it were a revolutionary medical breakthrough.

“Don’t apologize, move on, and everybody will talk about something else next week,” is how Ben Tribbett, a Democratic strategist, described it. “Maybe we’ve been doing it wrong over the last 100 years.”

For the Democrats, perhaps above all, there are the blunt political realities. Whatever may happen in the 2021 election for governor, every seat in the Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly will be up this November, and Democrats have a chance to take back power in at least one chamber of the legislature. That will be hard enough now, given the bales of fodder Republicans now have for attack ads. But the idea of trying to raise money and hold rallies while spurning the three highest officeholders in the state came to be seen by many Democrats as just a needless handicap.

Betsy Carr, a Democratic delegate, said shortly after stepping off the stage last week with Mr. Northam that voters “want to move on.” “They want positive things to happen, they’re concerned about the elections,” she said.

That sort of hard pragmatism is common among Democratic figures these days. But it is not unanimous. Many younger people in the party, in particular, are frustrated by what they see as the leadership’s hurry to move on from the scandals rather than come to grips with them.

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Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife, Pam Northam, third from left, pose for photos after the dedication of a historical marker for the civil rights leader Dr. Dorothy Height at a library in Richmond.CreditParker Michels-Boyce for The New York Times

“Winning is important,” said Taikein Cooper, the 30-year-old chairman of the Prince Edward County Democratic Party, “but we also have to have some morals.”

In the immediate wake of the scandals, the governor all but disappeared, either avoiding public events or being explicitly disinvited from them.

The gears of state government kept turning — bills were signed or vetoed, cabinet secretaries did their work — but Mr. Northam’s public resurfacing was slow, beginning with an appearance in early March at the third annual Public Safety Unmanned Aircraft Systems Conference.

Still, it is only in recent days that his public schedule has approached normal — or at least, something that looks normal from the outside.

“I think groups are struggling with, ‘What do we do? What do we do about inviting him? Do we want him the centerpiece of an announcement?’” said Mr. Cox, the House speaker, who spoke with Mr. Northam at the bill-signing for the first time since February. “It’s going to be pretty hard to say we’re just going to have a normal governorship for the next three years,” Mr. Cox said.

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, too, has been showing up at public events more often. But rather than trying to change the subject from the allegations against him, he dives right into them, even unprompted, as he did on the last day of the legislative session in a surprise speech comparing himself to a victim of lynching.

Mark Herring, the attorney general, has taken questions from the public on a few occasions since his own blackface scandal broke. But when he talked recently with reporters in Washington, after a Supreme Court hearing on gerrymandering, no one asked him about the episode.

Democrats fully acknowledge that there is unfinished business in all this. But they cite the lack of resolution as a reason to slow down on those immediate calls for resignations.

“Most people wanted to give the governor time to sort out what had happened,“ said State Senator Scott A. Surovell. “I think a lot of people question whether he’s in that picture, and they’re waiting for more information about who’s actually in it.”

Initially, Mr. Northam apologized for appearing in the yearbook photo, which shows a man in blackface makeup standing next to someone wearing a Klan robe and hood. But since then, he has insisted that he is actually not either of the people in the picture, and he has pledged to get to the bottom of the matter. The mechanism for that appears to be an inquiry that began last month, conducted on behalf of Eastern Virginia Medical School by the law firm McGuireWoods.

That investigation into the role of racism in the past and present culture of the school was also examining the circumstances of the infamous photo. No findings have been announced yet, and the investigation is expected to wrap up in the next few weeks.

Still, Mr. Northam made another pledge around the time he announced that he was staying put: to focus for the rest of his term on addressing racial inequities in American life, a theme he now repeatedly emphasizes in speeches.

The governor “welcomes the opportunity for future conversations” on improving racial equity, said a spokeswoman, Ofirah Yheskel, who pointed out various measures the governor has supported in recent weeks that reflect “his focus on the equity issues.”

One of the chief barometers of Mr. Northam’s success on this front has become the opinion of the legislative black caucus, to which other Democrats have readily deferred since the scandals broke. Members of the caucus have laid out their priorities in meetings and conversations with the governor, and they say he has mostly abided.

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At a memorial service for Dr. Dorothy Height at a church in South Richmond, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax spoke about Dr. Height’s advocacy against lynching, false accusations and denial of due process, themes he has hit repeatedly since the scandals erupted.CreditParker Michels-Boyce for The New York Times

“He’s been trying hard, from what I can see,” said Delegate Lamont Bagby, the chairman of the caucus. “He’s stumbled on his own feet a couple times, I think he would agree to that.” But Mr. Bagby gave his approval to the governor’s choice of bills to veto and amendments to propose over the past few weeks, and he said he believed that long-delayed but badly needed conversations about race had begun.

At a Baptist church in Richmond on a recent Sunday afternoon, Mr. Northam delivered brief remarks referring to lingering inequities at a ceremony in honor of Dorothy Height, a grande dame of the civil rights movement. He was followed at the pulpit by Mr. Fairfax — the first time they appeared in public together since the scandals erupted.

The contrast was stark.

Mr. Fairfax began with praise for Ms. Height’s “oratory around the issue of anti-lynching,” but it quickly became clear he was also talking about other matters.

“She saw what was happening in this country, where people were being falsely accused,” Mr. Fairfax said. “They were not given due process. They were having their lives in so many ways impacted negatively, in some ways taken away, because people wanted not to get to the truth but ultimately wanted things changed in a negative way for nefarious reasons.”

It was barely subtext, and he would revisit these themes more forthrightly two nights later at a Women’s History Month mixer in Hampton, Va., an event sponsored by the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. After the lieutenant governor gave a short speech on his fight against “fabricated claims and false allegations,” the crowd erupted in cheers of support.

Like Mr. Northam, Mr. Fairfax has insisted on an investigation into the accusations against him. He contends that he is being accused of sexual assault and rape for encounters that were consensual.

His demands for an investigation are echoed by fellow Democrats, as Mr. Northam’s are. But it remains unclear where exactly such an investigation is to come from.

“If it’s proved in a court of law, something needs to be done, but we’re not there yet,” Ms. Carr, the lawmaker, said.

Prosecutors in North Carolina and Massachusetts have been in contact with the two women who accused Mr. Fairfax — Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson — but there has been no public indication yet that a criminal investigation has been formally opened. Republican lawmakers announced plans for an investigative hearing, and both accusers have said repeatedly that they are willing to testify publicly as part of a bipartisan process, but Democratic lawmakers have balked, seeing such a hearing as a fruitless exercise prone to partisan grandstanding. At this point, there are few other obvious options.

“We are actually engaged in initiating processes that will make the truth known,” Mr. Fairfax said at the event in Hampton, speaking over the live jazz music and pleas for him to join in group photos. He declined to elaborate further.

On Sunday, a lawyer for Mr. Fairfax issued a news release saying that Mr. Fairfax had undergone polygraph examinations administered by a former F.B.I. agent, and that the results “demonstrated that Lt. Gov. Fairfax was telling the truth” in denying the allegations. A spokeswoman said these exams were separate from the “processes” that Mr. Fairfax had spoken of earlier.

And so life goes on in Virginia, with the legislature coming back this week for a quick session and with the political jockeying getting underway before the primaries in June. Democratic lawmakers who are asked what may come next on the scandal front have no concrete answer; most say their constituents would rather hear about roadwork, school financing and health care.

Those, after all, are matters that state politicians can actually change, as opposed to the things that apparently they cannot.

“The calls for resignation have not been rescinded,” Delegate Jeff Bourne, a member of the legislative black caucus, said a few days before appearing with the governor at a bill-signing ceremony. “But I think it’s one of those things where we are operating in the current state of affairs. And the current state of affairs is that the governor and lieutenant governor are still there.”

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