WASHINGTON — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam met with members of the state’s congressional delegation on Capitol Hill on Thursday to talk about transportation funding, expanding broadband internet access in rural areas and doing more to guard against the effects of climate change along the coast.
What wasn’t discussed — the scandal over Northam’s appearance in blackface in 1984 — showed how much the Democratic governor has tried to put the problem behind him since February when it erupted and leading figures in his party called on him to resign.
“Obviously, I’ve had conversations with them prior to today,” Northam said outside the Capitol building, after his first group meeting with Virginia’s federal lawmakers since the revelation of a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page nearly sunk his governorship. “Today was about moving Virginia forward.”
For the most part, Democratic party leaders in Virginia appear to agree it’s time to move on, especially since Northam has repeatedly said he intends to complete his four-year term that ends in January 2022.
In recent weeks, high-profile Democrats have praised Northam for holding a special legislative session on guns July 9 in response to the mass shooting in Virginia Beach.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine — who in February joined Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott in saying Northam’s actions had “irrevocably broken the trust Virginians must have in their leaders” — met privately with the governor earlier this week in what a spokeswoman said was a “positive” discussion.
Warner has previously indicated a similar willingness to work with Northam, saying, however, that the governor still must regain the trust of Virginians.
Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst , said the approaching elections offer an incentive for Democrats to move past the calls for resignation.
All 140 seats in the state legislature are on the November ballot. Republicans hold a three-seat edge in the House (51 to 48) and a bare majority in the Senate (20 to 19), with one vacant seat in each chamber.
“People recognize that, if this scandal is in the backdrop of the 2019 elections, that could dampen the enthusiasm that Democrats have shown in 2017 and 2018,” Holsworth said. He added that there appears to be evidence of a lingering effect on voters caused by Northam’s troubles, combined with a similar admission by Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring that he wore blackface at a party while in college, as well as two sexual assault allegations against Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, which he denies.
A recent Virginia Commonwealth University poll showed support for a Democratic-controlled General Assembly has dropped by nine percentage points since last July, to 43% of those surveyed. Northam’s approval rating, however, remained at about 40%, the poll found.
“I think everyone has made peace with the fact that Ralph Northam is the governor and he’s not leaving,” Holsworth said.
On Thursday, Northam said he intends to work with Virginia’s 13-member congressional delegation as much as possible to improve the state’s economy and make life in Virginia safer. The governor has also said he will focus on race and equity issues during the remainder of his term.
The 90-minute meeting on Capitol Hill included all of the delegation’s members except for Rep. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County, whose staff said he had a prior obligation but still believes Northam should resign.
Among other things, the lawmakers discussed federal funding for planned improvements along the Interstate 81 corridor, the role the 2020 Census would have in securing additional federal funds, and the need to deliver broadband internet access to residents in rural communities.
“Overall, we had a great discussion,” Northam said.
In prepared statements released minutes after the meeting ended, several of the federal lawmakers who attended echoed that sentiment.
“As former governors, we understand the need to work together for the good of all Virginians,” Kaine and Warner said in a joint statement. “Today’s meeting was an opportunity to do just that.”
Even Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Westmoreland, added a note of reconciliation, saying in his statement: “I appreciate the governor’s dedication to working with Congress to close the digital divide in Virginia.”
Wittman’s spokeswoman did not return messages for comment.
The display of civility drew sneers from the state’s Republican Party, which has repeatedly hammered Northam over the blackface scandal.
John March, the state party’s spokesman, called the meeting part of a “shameful” U-turn by Democrats.
“Governor Blackface is a disgrace to the Commonwealth and has turned Virginia into a national laughing stock,” March said in his statement.