When Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was first linked to a photo on his medical school yearbook page, depicting one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, many assumed he would resign, turning over power to Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.
But Fairfax, a fellow Democrat who would become the second black governor in the state’s history and the youngest currently serving governor in the country, soon faced allegations of his own: Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor at Scripps College and fellow at Stanford University, accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her when they were both attending the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, allegations he has denied.
That led to the question of what would happen if Northam and Fairfax both resign. Ordinarily, it would mean succession passes to Attorney General Mark Herring, also a Democrat. But Herring revealed Wednesday that he, too, had appeared in blackface during his younger days, wearing “wigs and brown makeup” to impersonate rappers at a 1980 college party. (Northam has said he doesn’t know anything about the yearbook photo, after previously saying he was in it, although he does acknowledge he donned blackface to impersonate Michael Jackson on another occasion.)
If all three resign, the governorship would likely change parties: The next in line for succession is the speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates, who is Kirk Cox, a Republican. If he can’t serve for some reason, the Republican-led House would vote for a new governor. To make things potentially more politically complicated, the House of Delegates is split 51-49, after one tied legislative race was awarded to a Republican through a random drawing.
Yet another possibility is that Northam resigns (though he’s shown no sign he’s inclined to do so, even pledging to hire a private investigator to probe the racist photo), Fairfax ascends, appoints a new lieutenant governor and then resigns himself. He’d likely have to move quickly: While the state constitution lets the governor appoint a new lieutenant governor, the Republican-controlled legislature could demand an election for the position be held in November, Vox reports.
Exactly what will happen in Virginia, and which of the state’s top officials will remain in office next week, next month, and next year, remains very much an open question.