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Top Virginia Republican calls for Governor’s resignation: ‘This is just heartbreaking’

Posted at 9:18 AM, Feb 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-05 09:25:14-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- A top ranking Virginia Republican in state politics repeated his call Monday for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to resign. But House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox (R - Chesterfield) stopped short of saying he would attempt to remove Northam from office.

"I think there's a rightful hesitation about removal from office," Del. Cox told reporters at the State Capitol Monday morning. "You have to consider, to some degree, you're overturning an election."

Nearly every politician in Virginia, both Democrat and Republican, has called for Northam's resignation following the Democratic governor's initial apology and subsequent denial that he appeared in a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page.

The Friday night apology (via video statement) and Saturday afternoon denial (during a 40-minute press conference) combined to convince many politicians that Northam must step down.

"It has become clear to us, regardless of the veracity of the photograph, the governor has lost the confidence of the people and cannot effectively govern," Cox said Monday. "That's why we've called for the resignation. We hope that's what the governor does. I think that would obviously be less pain for everyone."

Governor Northam said Saturday he had no immediate plans to resign.

On Sunday he called a meeting of his top administration officials of color to see if anyone closely connected with him would be willing to stand with him, CNN reported.

"Not one person told the governor that he should stay and fight,"  a source with knowledge of the conversation told CNN.

Cox said he had not spoken with the governor since Saturday and had not yet heard from any Democrats interested in initiating an impeachment process.

"Oh, I think this is a very, very tragic," Cox said about the situation. "I have worked with the governor. We've certainly not agreed on everything. But I would say that this is just heartbreaking."

Cox said Monday state lawmakers have opted to call for Northam's resignation because of the "high standard" required in Virginia for impeachment.

According to Virginia professor A.E. Dick Howard, no Virginia governor has ever been removed from office via impeachment, although the Virginia Constitution provides such a mechanism.

The state Constitution says the governor -- as well as other elected or appointed officials -- can face impeachment in the General Assembly for "malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor." The process, similar to impeachment on the federal level, requires the House of Delegates to impeach the governor before a trial is held in the Senate, where a conviction requires a two-thirds majority.

A separate section on gubernatorial succession allows for the Virginia attorney general, the head of either chamber of the General Assembly or a majority of the General Assembly to declare the governor "unable to discharge the powers and duties" of the office and have the lieutenant governor become acting governor.

The governor could then declare himself able to retake the office, but the issue would return to the state leaders and ultimately a three-fourths majority of the legislature would have to declare the governor unable to hold office.

A senior legislative aide indicated to CNN the latter mechanism would be inappropriate in this circumstance.

"Many feel the Constitution in that section is only meant for when a governor is physically unable to fulfill his duties, such as if he had a heart attack or was assassinated or something along those lines," the aide said.

The racist yearbook photo, which Northam has denied being in, predates his time in office by several decades, and Cox's comments on Monday would indicate that impeachment would be difficult to pursue should Northam stand firm and remain in office.

CNN Wire contributed to this report.