Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has a chance to redeem himself by ushering in a raft of liberal reforms after he embarrassed the commonwealth by becoming embroiled in a blackface scandal.
Northam’s legacy-building efforts this week received a boost when Democrats regained control of both the Virginia General Assembly’s chambers for the first time since 1994, clearing legislative obstacles once presented by Republicans.
George Mason University associate professor Jeremy Mayer said the Democratic victories would herald in a period of “dramatic change” given pressure from liberal activists in the party’s base to deliver on campaign promises ahead of 2021’s gubernatorial election.
“Including expansion of healthcare, including, most particularly, progress on guns. That is an issue that the Democratic governor wanted to move on and that many Democrats in the legislature wanted to move on and, very deliberately and publicly, the Republican majorities that existed then said no,” Mayer told the Washington Examiner.
Mayer floated specific gun reform measures, such as limits on the number of weapons Virginians can buy a month to more stringent background checks, in addition to an expansion of voter rights, seen by critics as a way to bolster a Democratic electoral stranglehold on the state, along with partisan gerrymandering.
“Virginia’s one of the last few states that doesn’t clearly give felons voting rights once they’ve served their time,” he said, also mentioning state and federal redistricting in line with 2020 census data.
Quentin Kidd, a Christopher Newport University political science professor, offered a more tepid forecast, however, because of a “struggle” he foresees unfolding between liberal and more centrist Democrats. Even though more left-leaning Democrats are driving “energy” in the party, many members of the incoming caucus are moderates “who are more pro-business than not,” Kidd told the Washington Examiner.
“Are there things that Democrats are going to be able to agree on and pass, like the Equal Rights Amendment? Yes. I mean those things will fly through both the House and the Senate,” the academic said. “Right to Work? I would be quite frankly shocked if Right to Work made it to the governor’s desk,” he added, of state laws that mean employers can work in unionized workplaces without joining a union.
Raising the minimum wage is another possibility; however, it would likely be rolled out “over several years,” according to Kidd.
“Gun control legislation? The sort of lowest-hanging fruit gun control, like red flag laws, stuff like that, would sail through the General Assembly, probably with a good number of Republican votes as well. But banning assault weapons, things like that, I don’t know. I think that stuff might have a harder time,” he said.
Virginia Democrats’ newfound power comes after significant turmoil for the state party earlier this year when it emerged that Northam, 60, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, 58, posed in blackface photos when they were younger. At about the same time, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, 40, was accused of sexual misconduct by two different women, allegations he has denied.
For Mayer, Republicans thought the controversies, specifically the blackface revelations, were going to play to their advantage since African Americans are critical to the Democratic coalition.
“But black voters … were never as angry about the Northam blackface as many white Republicans and even white Democrats expected them to be,” he said. “Many of them were upset, but not so upset that they were either going to stay at home in an election where Northam’s name was not on the ballot or they were going to vote Republican somehow. So when that dog didn’t bark, I think that the Democrats really righted themselves.”
Virginia Democrats may have tacitly forgiven Northam but they are unlikely to forget, Mayer warned. The academic predicted “some position will open up for” Northam, “maybe at a university somewhere,” but he’ll struggle to leverage the governorship into a Senate seat like predecessors such as George Allen, Tim Kaine, and Mark Warner because he’s no longer “a force in Democratic politics.”
“For Democrats, in considering the Northam legacy, there’ll always be a very large asterisk,” he said.