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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam Plans To Survive By Changing His Agenda To Focus On Race

The governor — reading "Roots" and "The Case for Reparations" — has brought on a new team to help, and is committed to pursuing a bold policy agenda to help make amends.

Posted on February 8, 2019, at 4:07 p.m. ET

Alex Edelman / Getty Images

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, still facing calls to resign as governor a week after the revelation that his page in a medical school yearbook features a racist photograph, is now tightly focused on coming up with plans to survive.

His office has begun to explore how it might recalibrate Northam’s legislative agenda to focus closely on race and equality, sources close to the governor tell BuzzFeed News. The move would mark a brazen attempt to hang onto his office by shifting the conversation away from Northam’s admission of having once worn blackface and his denials that he is featured in the racist yearbook photo, either as the person in blackface or the person in a Klan outfit. Northam’s policy team is looking at crafting a set of proposals based on the premise that the governor’s mistakes have rendered him keenly aware of inequity and the lack of justice faced by black Virginians 400 years after the first African people arrived in the Commonwealth, at Point Comfort, in 1619.

The centerpiece proposal is not complete in its scope or in terms of what it will seek to accomplish. But there are many possibilities being considered for a broad platform: increasing resources for affordable housing; setting new, more equitable standards in small business procurement; implementing programs that expand economic opportunity for entrepreneurs; pumping money into public services like education and transportation.

“Now that he knows better he is going to do better,” a Northam adviser said.

But Northam is still struggling to convince those around him that he should be able to complete his term in office, and that he was not in fact in the yearbook picture.

His chief argument as he has huddled with advisers and staff that he was not: The people in the picture were holding beers in their right hands.

That stuck Northam as odd, a source close to his office said. In medical school, Northam told advisers, he’d been so awkward with his right hand that he had to force himself to hold the scalpel with it. His left hand was his dominant hand, and indeed, the hand with which he was holding a beer in the picture of him alone in a cowboy hat — next to one that could yet alter the course of his political career.

The picture was the first missive that sparked an uproar that has plunged Virginia’s politics into a seemingly bottomless pit of disarray, and especially the state’s Democratic Party, which had been in the midst of a political revival buttressed by Hillary Clinton’s winning performance in the state in 2016. Soon, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would face allegations that he had sexually assaulted a woman in a 2004 encounter. He's denied the allegations but the woman, Vanessa Tyson, has attached her name and put details of the incident in a statement putting pressure on Fairfax to step down. And Mark Herring, the attorney general, admitted to dressing in blackface at a college party.

Backed by Northam’s assertion that he is neither person in the photo, strategic communications and PR firm IR+Media to help him try to recover. The team, led by top strategist Jarvis C. Stewart, a veteran of Capitol Hill, will try to determine how the photo got into the yearbook — an obscure artifact of national political importance that Northam says he didn’t buy at the time and claims he had never seen.

But if it is indeed not him in the photo, Northam’s political problems are a set of circumstances that are difficult to parse. Why would he put out a statement of apology suggesting he was in the picture soon after it was published, only to rescind it the next day, and then admit guilt of using blackface in an attempt to impersonate Michael Jackson years earlier?

Northam is telling those close to him that the answer lies in his character: Northam, who hails from the Commonwealth’s Eastern Shore, a somewhat isolated locale, has explained privately to advisers that both his training and experiences at the Virginia Military Institute and as a serviceman fostered an ethos of accepting responsibility in the interest of moving on. Northam’s team was not ready for the maelstrom that ensued from the photo and his immediate responses, an adviser said. In school, Northam had a reputation for being somewhat socially-awkward and bookish, so much so that someone close to him questioned whether the inclusion of the photo on his yearbook page was a gag designed to rag him by classmates who had given him a hard time.

The civil rights community, led by Rev. Al Sharpton and the Virginia black legislative caucus, are keeping the pressure on Northam to resign. Sharpton, in some nimbly-crafted political strategy, appeared Thursday at the historically-black Virginia Union University. Flanked by other religious leaders, Sharpton suggested that even if he was not in the picture, his admission that he had put some shoe polish on his face to impersonate Jackson was still more than enough cause to resign. On Thursday, Sharpton told BuzzFeed News that Northam’s attempt to explain away the picture was pointless. “It’s tantamount to saying, ‘I didn’t rob Wells Fargo bank, but I did rob Bank of America.’ Well, you’re still a bank robber, he said.”

Northam doesn’t plan to hold any more press conferences any time soon. Advisers are in the midst of negotiations with major networks for a nationally televised interview they hope will humanize him. Additionally, his advisers have assigned the governor homework: He’s begun to read Alex Haley’s “Roots”, and “The Case for Reparations,” the seminal essay in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

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