RICHMOND, Va. — The political crisis engulfing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has triggered a flurry of comparisons to another chief executive who once found himself facing deafening calls from fellow Democrats to resign: Virginia’s Ralph Northam.
“#Cuomo is pulling a Northam,” tweeted veteran political analyst Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Like Cuomo, Northam initially faced nearly unanimous calls from his own party to resign after a scandal erupted over a racist photo in his medical school yearbook. But he refused to step down. The pressure eased after his two potential successors, Attorney General Mark Herring and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, became embroiled in their own controversies.
While it’s true that Cuomo and Northam are both high-profile Democrats who have found themselves at odds with their party and at the center of a national news media frenzy, Northam’s supporters and some outside political observers say that’s where the similarities end.
“I don’t see any comparison,” said state Sen. Richard Stuart, a Republican and personal friend of the Virginia governor. Stuart declined to discuss the matter at length.
In the two years since news of the yearbook photo broke, Northam has evolved from a one-time pariah to a respected state leader whose endorsement is coveted in this year’s competitive statewide elections.
Northam managed to hang on initially by laying low, even using underground tunnels at the state Capitol to stay out of sight. But then he got to work rebuilding trust — with Black lawmakers in particular — and making good on his promise to spend the rest of his term addressing Virginia’s long history of racism and inequity.
Cuomo is facing allegations that he sexually harassed or behaved inappropriately toward multiple women, including several former staffers in his administration. The accusations, which have sparked an impeachment inquiry and an investigation into his workplace conduct, range from groping under a woman’s shirt to asking unwelcome personal questions about sex and dating.
As calls from top Democrats for his resignation have mounted, the governor has said he “never touched anyone inappropriately” and has called some allegations false.
One key difference between the two governors’ situations is that the accusations against Cuomo deal with behaviors during his term in office, while the controversy that engulfed Northam involved his life decades ago, well before he entered politics, noted Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University.
In early 2019, a conservative news outlet first reported that a photo on Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page showed a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. The governor first admitted he was in the picture, and then the next day denied it, but also acknowledged putting on blackface to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest decades ago.
Northam and Cuomo are also two very different men.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist and onetime volunteer medical director of a children’s hospice, is softer spoken. He was well liked during his time in the General Assembly, where he first jumped into politics. Voters often described him as “decent” and “honest.”
Cuomo, meanwhile, governs in a forceful, adversarial style that professor Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, called aggressive if not “on the bullying side.”
“When bullies get into trouble, they tend to have fewer allies. And that may explain part of the reason why Northam was able to survive,” Farnsworth said.
Northam has made good on his racial equality pledge in splashy ways — pledging to remove a soaring state-owned statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from downtown Richmond — and quieter ones, including empaneling a commission to examine old, racist state laws still on the books.
He also appointed a Cabinet-level diversity director tasked with making government more inclusive and sought funding for a host of initiatives aimed at more prominently telling the story of Black history in the public sphere. He created a panel to study how Black history is taught in schools. He backed proposals to resolve racial disparities in maternal health, and he’s worked with the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly to pass a host of criminal justice reforms, including a measure this year that will repeal the death penalty.
Within two months of the yearbook scandal breaking, Northam was back to making regular public appearances. Nine months later he was back on the campaign trail, and he’s now on his way to finishing up a term in office that has seen Virginia transformed into an outlier in the South through progressive legislation. Virginia governors are prohibited from serving consecutive terms.
“He’s been what I believe to be the most consequential governor in Virginia’s history, especially when it comes to issues of racial equity,” said Jay Jones, a Democratic delegate challenging Herring in the attorney general’s race. Jones recently picked up one of Northam’s coveted endorsements.
A final difference between Cuomo and Northam?
Cuomo had been expected to run for a fourth term in 2022.
As for Northam, his senior political adviser Mark Bergman said: “He will never be running for office again.”