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Democrats, Republicans Call For Virginia Gov. Northam's Resignation


We wanted to talk more about some of the political forces at play here, so we've called up two political analysts. Larry Sabato is the founder and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, and Andra Gillespie is a professor of political science at Emory University.

Welcome to you both. Thanks so much for joining us.

LARRY SABATO: Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, the governor says he will not resign, that the photo in question is not him, that the placement on his page is some kind of accident. But he did acknowledge a separate incident where he donned blackface at a dance party. So I'm just going to ask each of you as briefly as you can to just tell me what you make of all of that. Professor Gillespie, I'll start with you.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Well, I found the press conference to actually not make the case for Governor Northam - and, I mean, and painfully so. You know, every, you know, explanation and excuse that he made, one, sometimes just didn't seem plausible and then, I think, just further dug in the perception that he's out of touch and is actually a distraction.

MARTIN: OK. And, professor Sabato, what about you?

SABATO: Oh, I'd say exhausting and bizarre. Those two words pretty much summarize how all of us here are feeling and probably the governor, too. But the strangest part of it was that he embraced the fact that he was one of those two people - either of the one in blackface or the one in the KKK costume. Now, if you hadn't ever done anything like that, would you ever agree that - to take responsibility for something so horrible? It just doesn't hang together. And even if it turns out to be true, it suggests that he's not very good at managing a difficult situation.

MARTIN: So, professor Gillespie, does - I'm curious about a couple of things, but a number of people have been caught up in controversies over blackface - I mean, perhaps surprisingly, given that - you know, that it's 2019. But in several of these cases, the people have made - been deemed to have made racially insensitive remarks in the past. Does that matter? There doesn't seem to be any other evidence of that in the governor's public record. Does - why does this carry so much weight?

GILLESPIE: Well, I think the way he handled this press conference today shows why this still matters. So one, I just find it hard to believe that if he had participated in this picture that he would have forgotten about this because that's something that's memorable. And I am still finding it really hard to believe that he didn't know that this photo had been submitted on his behalf for the yearbook.

But had something like this happened, and he had come out - so, I mean, keep in mind that in 2017, he was running for governor when Charlottesville happened, right? That's a time to talk about his own evolution. And I think people would have been somewhat open to accepting that and actually seeing what growth is, and it would have given him a platform to have some moral authority to address the issue.

So yesterday happened, and at first, there's a denial that it's him. And, you know, people still are having a hard time believing that. But then he comes and has this press conference today, and it's completely bizarre. And he rambles, and he admits to putting shoe polish on his face. And he talks about the black friend that absolved him.

So he was just basically ceding any moral authority that he would have to be an honest broker on racial issues. And, in fact, it put him in a position where it looks like he has so much to learn on racial issues that he actually should step aside because he's not in a position to lead at this point.

MARTIN: Professor Sabato, how much of a factor in this is the fact that, should the governor step aside, he will be replaced by an African-American lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, who's kind of a rising star? He would be the second African-American governor of Virginia, and I wonder if that is a factor here.

SABATO: Well, it's certainly a factor in the calculations for Democrats. Look - ask yourself a question. If there were a Republican lieutenant governor who would succeed to the governorship, would Democrats be so eager to cede the governorship and to demand that Northam resign? I don't think so. The fact is that Justin Fairfax is lieutenant governor, and potentially, he could add some stability to the quick turnover of Virginia governorship. Virginia's the last state in the union to have the one-term limit, one-term consecutive.

So Justin Fairfax, if he succeeded, would get three years of Northam's four-year term and would have the opportunity to do something no Virginia governor has able - ever been able to do since the Civil War - run immediately for re-election in 2021. Democrats are really delighted by that. They also know Fairfax to project a very strong, intelligent image. People would like him and, I think, might be inclined to rush to his support, if only to wipe away the embarrassment of yet another Virginia scandal. We've had so many of them in governors and senators over the past couple of decades.

MARTIN: And, professor Sabato, just on that point of - the governor has been dealing with another issue that has made some national attention - particularly in conservative media outlets, but as well others. He made some controversial remarks in regard to a bill that would lift a variety of state-level abortion restrictions. The intent of the governor's comments wasn't clear, but a lot of conservatives have said that he's condoning infanticide. And that had been the dust-up about him before this all happened. And I'm wondering if this also plays a role in the willingness of people to ask him to go.

SABATO: Well, possibly or even probably. He certainly didn't demonstrate any dexterity in handling a very sensitive, controversial matter. And the way he phrased his response sounded a little bit or maybe a lot like supporting infanticide. So you'd better believe that didn't go over well. He could have survived that. But the combination of these two has made it very difficult for him to continue as governor. Frankly, I think the photo, the KKK blackface photo alone would have caused most of these calls for his resignation.

MARTIN: That is Larry Sabato. He's the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. We were also joined by Andra Gillespie. She's a political science professor at Emory University.

I want to thank you both so much for talking to us today.

SABATO: Certainly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SOURCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.