Early Monday afternoon, Democratic Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Richmond) began re-arranging tables and chairs at Peter Paul Development Center in Richmond, where he serves as the director of operations.
He was preparing for an event that would have been unthinkable two months ago: Governor Ralph Northam, sitting in a room with three black lawmakers and other local leaders, having a cordial conversation about the census.
When Northam’s racist yearbook photo exploded onto national news in February, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus called it “disgusting, reprehensible, and offensive,” and called for his resignation. But when Northam ignored those calls, and eventually surfaced again in public, Bagby, who heads the caucus, and his other Richmond-area colleagues have increasingly appeared alongside Northam, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
“We don’t have the luxury of going into our corners and not working with the governor,” Bagby said on Monday. “And for that matter, not working with Republicans who have blocked a number of the initiatives that we deem necessary.”
Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) said the incident was a “bump in the road” and a “difficult moment” but said she believed Northam had a solid long-term record of promoting policies that addressed racial inequities.
“I see that with the veto session coming and with all his legislation, he just continues to move that legislation forward, and I’m appreciative of that,” she said. “I didn’t call for him to step down in the beginning, okay?”
Senator Rosalyn Dance said she, too, will work alongside Northam, and whispered a goodbye to the governor as she left the census meeting early.
The Virginia GOP has criticized Democrats for changing their tune.
“If you're so excited to talk about events with elected officials, you should do a dance competition with @RalphNortham!,” the Virginia GOP tweeted on Friday . “I bet people would pay to see a good moonwalk.
But Bagby says he needs to be able to work with anyone--including Northam and Republicans--to get his priorities passed. He says he doesn’t believe appearing alongside Northam will hurt Democrats’ re-election chances in the crucial November elections, when the party is hoping to wrest control of both chambers of the legislature.
“I’ve never shied away from Republicans or Democrats that I disagree with,” Bagby said. “If I were to behave in that fashion, there would be a lot of Republicans I wouldn’t stand beside.”