Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam puts his name to one of the marijuana legalization bills he signed at a ceremony inside the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond, Virginia, on April 21, 2021. Looking on, from left, are: state Sen. Adam Ebbin, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, Sen. Louise Lucas, and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring.
Alexandria, Virginia CNN  — 

When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam looks back at his tenure, the inflection point between being a run-of-the-mill executive and the progressive leader he has become is a painful one.

The scandal – born of the discovery of a decades-old yearbook photo that featured someone in blackface – was an existential crisis for Northam and his administration. After initially saying the person in question was him, he denied it but admitted to darkening his skin as part of a Michael Jackson dance contest in 1984. Almost every Virginia Democrat called for his ouster as the state examined its racist past. Those closest to Northam said he was close to resigning.

Then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam greets voters at a canvas kickoff on June 13, 2017, in Chesterfield, Virginia.

How the governor survived was a surprise even to his most ardent supporters. The man who was nearly thrown out of office by his own party has, in the two years since, become a progressive champion, working with the same Democrats who called for his resignation to tighten gun laws in the commonwealth, restore the voting rights to nearly 70,000 felons, approve voting rights legislation and abolish the death penalty in the state. And just this week Northam signed legislation that would legalize marijuana this summer, the first Southern state to do so.

Northam’s strategy to get beyond the scandal was part personal, part professional.

The 61-year-old Democrat was forced to address his own racial ignorance. He held a number of private listening sessions with Black leaders across a commonwealth that was once home to the capital of the Confederacy. He publicly pledged to both learn from his racial blind spots and to commit his administration to combating racial inequality.

Northam took that focus on equity and used it to stabilize his administration, giving aides and advisers something to work toward as the scandal continued to play out. The months following the scandal were critical to this work – both because of what Northam did to win back the support of Virginians and because Democrats were able to win control of the Virginia General Assembly in 2019, giving the party full control of the state’s government for the first time in more than two decades.

Northam remains embarrassed by the scandal, disappointed in both his prior racial ignorance and the pain he caused Virginia. But it is clear when speaking to him that there is a slight silver lining.

When asked if the scandal gave his tenure a different arc, he replied, “It did.”

“This was painful, mainly for Virginia … but we have really been able to bring some good from it.”

‘Those days were tough’

From the outset of his rehabilitation, Northam was bombarded with advice – often unsolicited.

Dozens of Virginia politicians were both publicly and privately looking to counsel the governor on how he could make it through. Among those was former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican whose own tenure was plagued by scandal and who publicly argued Northam needed to go on a public apology tour and make plain the deep regret he had.

Northam, however, went for a more private option, following the lead of state Del. Lamont Bagby, who served as the chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, a group that called on Northam to resign. Bagby and other caucus members told the governor the way forward “is not vising Black churches and visiting HBCUs” for large public displays of apology, said Bagby, but was instead by making sure he passed legislation and signed budgets that “reflect a desire to positively impact those lives that have been disenfranchised.”

“He had everyone in his ear saying they could help him save his four years,” Bagby recalled. “And I think it is clear the path he chose.”

Northam kicked off his journey out of scandal by signing a bill that established the Virginia African American Advisory Board, a group that was created to advise the governor on how he could better serve Black Virginians. The bill was introduced by Bagby. Later in the year, Northam instituted a plan to get rid of racist language from Virginia law.

“I committed myself and our administration to listening,” Northam told CNN, citing private meetings he had where he “learned a lot more about history than I had known prior to that.” He added: “We really were able to turn a lot of the listening tour into policy.”

“The reality is that this Black oppression is alive and well in 2021, it’s just in a different form,” Northam said, arguing that while he tried to work on equity before the yearbook incident, the scandal “brought it into certainly a much stronger focus.”

Former Northam aides who worked to get the governor through the scandal say while there wasn’t a single moment that convinced them he would turn things around, the governor’s commitment to racial equity provided the office with a guide.

“When he made the commitment to equity, that felt significant because it was a North Star for all of our work and a part of every conversation,” said a former aide, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the difficult time after the scandal broke. “And it felt to me that was something we could control and focus on every single day.”

Charniele Herring, chair of the Democratic Caucus in the Virginia House of Delegates, called on Northam to resign during the scandal. But once it was clear the governor wasn’t going to go, Herring spoke with him multiple times about how seeing the yearbook photo was “triggering” for someone who had a cross burned on her family car as a child.

“He didn’t realize the institutional racism that exists,” Herring said. “Those days were tough. … (But) he realized it wasn’t enough just to read a couple of chapters of ‘Roots.’ “

Herring added: “He could have put a barrier up, shut us down, but he listened and that was key, and strive to understand and realize sort of the own privilege that he had. And he talks about that sort of privilege that he was able to have all his life.”

An inflection point

For Northam and those around him, there is a clear division in Northam’s tenure – before what the governor calls the “yearbook incident” and after the scandal. And it is undeniable that the more than two-year period after the scandal has seen Democrats achieve more than before Northam gained national infamy.

A key part of that story has been forgiveness.

First, Northam himself asked for it – both from Virginians who were disappointed in the man they elected and lawmakers who called for his ouster.

Then the governor learned to give it.

When he refused to resign, the Democrat had to face those in his party – both nationally and in the state – who called for him to go.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gestures as his wife, Pam, listens during a press conference on February 2, 2019.

The list was long – and included both future President Joe Biden, who hadn’t yet formally declared his candidacy, and would-be Vice President Kamala Harris, then a senator from California and a presidential candidate. Some were more personal, like when former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who Northam served under for four years as lieutenant governor, called on him to go.

Northam now says that he doesn’t harbor ill-will toward those allies who broke with him in February 2019. He has welcomed many of them back into the fold, in part because he has to – almost any Virginia Democrat of prominence called for him to go at the time – and in part because he knows he was in the wrong.

“I understand politics and I saw what happened,” Northam said of all those who called for him to step down. “But we worked through that and thankfully, Virginians stuck with me in clearly what was a difficult time. I was committed and I let people know that I was going to bring good from this. And I think people trusted me and stayed with me.”

And now Northam is routinely appearing with Democratic figures who wanted him to go two years ago.

Earlier this month, Northam stood in the cafeteria of a homeless shelter with some of the most powerful Democrats in the commonwealth, preparing to endorse McAuliffe, who is running for another term as governor by promising to build on the four years under Northam. The governor is term limited because Virginia bars governors from serving consecutive terms.

The former governor who just two years ago said Northam would “do the right thing” and step down lauded the Northam administration at the event and pledged that, if elected, he would use the next four years to build on its successes. And just days earlier, McAuliffe used the first answer in the first Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary debate to thank the incumbent governor.

“I am honored to be here with our great governor Ralph Northam,” McAuliffe said.

Herring and Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Eileen Filler-Corn – two Democrats who said he should resign – also appeared with the governor at the McAuliffe event earlier this month.

National figures, too, have shown no hesitation in joining Northam. In late March, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who called for Northam’s resignation when he was a presidential candidate, appeared with him at an infrastructure event in Northern Virginia.

“He will tell you that his perspective has changed on a lot of things over the course of his governorship and being exposed to some of the issues we are facing has brought him to this place,” said Jay Jones, a member of the House of Delegates who, unlike most of his colleagues, did not call on Northam to go. Jones is now running to unseat incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring, a fellow Democrat, and Northam has endorsed his candidacy.

“He is the most consequential governor that we have ever had,” said Jones. “And everyone who is running for office in Virginia is looking to him for support.”

Northam, with mere months left in his term, wants to continue his commitment to equity in his post-gubernatorial life, too.

While the doctor-turned-politician plans to go back to his practice in Hampton Roads and see patients, he is also looking for ways to teach and share his perspective with young people.

“I really look forward to sharing my perspective now, which is a much wider perspective than when I went into this position,” he said. “As a White person, talking about things like systemic racism and Black oppression … I think I have a really interesting perspective on that and can help people.”

He added: “We are all human and we learn from our mistakes. I give graduation commencement speeches where I talk about, we are going to get knocked down sometimes and we have to get up and dust ourselves off and learn from those instances and do better the next day.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Biden’s status at the time of the Northam scandal. He had not yet formally declared his presidential candidacy.