February 6, 2019 / 11:00 AM / 5 months ago

Virginia lawmakers focus on budget as embattled governor hunkers down

RICHMOND, Va., Feb 6 (Reuters) - Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, facing nearly universal calls from fellow Democrats for his resignation over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, stayed hunkered down in the state capital while lawmakers pressed ahead with efforts to pass a budget.

As the scandal surrounding Northam dragged into a sixth day on Wednesday, the political future of the former U.S. Army physician and his next move remained open questions, despite formidable opposition mounting against him.

The 59-year-old governor, who took office a year ago, came under fire on Friday when a conservative media website released a photo from Northam’s personal yearbook page showing one man in blackface makeup standing beside a masked individual garbed in white robes of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.

Northam, who is white, initially apologized and conceded he was one of the two people in the photo. But he changed his story a day later, saying neither figure in the picture was him and acknowledging he had dressed in blackface once before to portray pop star Michael Jackson.

The origins of blackface date to 19th-century “minstrel” shows in which white performers covered their faces in black grease paint to caricature slaves.

Revelation of the yearbook photo, and the governor’s response to it, drew a chorus of demands for his resignation from civil rights groups and Virginia politicians, including most in his own party, as well as from several Democratic presidential candidates.

Democrats fear that if he stays in office, Republicans in Virginia - a key swing state in the 2020 White House race - would seize on the yearbook scandal to try to turn the election there into a referendum on Northam.

Since his news conference on Saturday to publicly address the furor, Northam’s office has said nothing about his plans, and he has remained out of public view.

With no fanfare on Tuesday, he privately signed high-profile legislation to provide $750 million in cash incentives to Amazon.com Inc in return for the online retailer’s promise to create 38,000 new jobs in Virginia.

Legislators in both parties likewise had little to say on Northam’s predicament on Tuesday.

“It’s a distraction,” Republican state Senator Charles “Bill” Carrico said, adding, “I’m here to do a job.”

Carrico said he and fellow lawmakers were focused mostly on trying to reach a deal on revisions Northam proposed to the state’s $2.1 billion biennial budget before a Feb. 23 deadline.

Meanwhile, Northam’s political heir apparent, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, 39, confronted a potential scandal of his own.

Fairfax on Monday denied a sexual assault allegation that was reported against him on the same website that first disclosed the Northam yearbook photo.

The Big League Politics site posted a private Facebook message on Sunday purportedly obtained from the accuser with her permission by a friend suggesting that Fairfax had assaulted her during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Fairfax on Monday acknowledged a consensual encounter with the woman in 2004 but said the story of an assault was “totally fabricated.”

Fairfax has been non-committal on Northam’s future, saying it was up to the governor to decide his next move.

Should Northam resign, Fairfax would succeed him to become the second African-American governor in the history of Virginia, where his great-great-great grandfather was a slave. The first was Douglas Wilder, a Democrat elected in 1989. (Reporting by Gary Robertson in Richmond; Writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Darren Schuettler)

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