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A History of Notable Governor Resignations: Will Ralph Northam be next?

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By Roey Hadar

Gwen Ifill Fellow


Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is facing calls to resign over a racist photo that appeared on his medical school yearbook page, but if Northam steps aside or is impeached and removed from office as Virginia Democrats in the state legislature have called for, he would be the first Governor of Virginia to resign since the Civil War, but far from the first governor nationwide to do so.


Governors resign for a range of reasons, with several doing so to take Cabinet-level positions in the White House. But those who resign amid scandals often take on a level of infamy.


Three governors—Eric Greitens of Missouri, Bob Bentley of Alabama and John Kitzhaber of Oregon-- have resigned in the last three years, but going further back, there have been several incidents which have forced governors to resign under pressure.


Here are five notable instances in recent memory when governors have faced scandals and resigned or been removed from office.


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Eric Greitens (R-Mo.)

Greitens is the most recent Governor to have resigned, stepping down from his role as Missouri’s governor after allegations of sexual misconduct and charges of both invasion of privacy and computer tampering. Greitens, a U.S. Navy veteran who was considered a rising star in the Republican Party before his resignation, was indicted on felony invasion of privacy charges.


Greitens admitted to having an affair with his hair stylist before becoming governor, but allegedly blackmailed her by threatening to release compromising photographs of her if she came forward with the affair. The woman involved also alleged Greitens had touched her and hit her without her consent. Amid growing pressure from his own party and as part of a deal with law enforcement to withdraw the felony computer tampering charge.


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Sarah Palin (R-Alaska)

Palin, the former Republican nominee for Vice President in 2008, faced mounting ethics complaints filed against her. Palin faced allegations of abuse of power for moving to fire the state’s Public Safety Commissioner. While Palin cited performance issues in firing the commissioner, Palin also allegedly tried to get him to fire her ex-brother-in-law, a state trooper involved in a messy divorce proceeding with her sister.


While Palin did not face any criminal charges and all complaints against her were ultimately dismissed, she announced in July 2009 that she would not run for reelection the following year and resign early.


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Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.)

Blagojevich was arrested in December 2008 on charges of “pay to play” schemes relating to his power to appoint a successor to Barack Obama to a U.S. Senate seat after Obama’s election as president. Blagojevich had discussed his desire to exchange the Senate appointment for some sort of personal benefit in wiretapped recordings.


Blagojevich refused to resign but the Illinois House and Senate both voted to impeach him. In the Illinois Senate, the chamber voted unanimously to impeach the governor. After being forced out, a federal grand jury found Blagojevich guilty of 18 counts, including all of those relating to the Senate seat. He became the fourth Illinois governor to go to prison and remains in jail to this day.


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Eliot Spitzer (D-N.Y.)

Spitzer resigned as Governor of New York in 2008 after just over a year in the role after revelations that he had paid thousands of dollars to obtain the services of prostitutes and call girls. After an initial revelation that Spitzer had paid for a $1,000-an-hour call girl and met her at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, further reporting indicated Spitzer paid up to $80,000 for prostitutes, a detail that came to light because his bank suspected potential money laundering and reported suspicious money transfers.


Spitzer resigned two days after the news broke, amid threats of impeachment from the state legislature. He attempted a political comeback in 2013 by trying to run for New York City Comptroller, but lost in the Democratic primary.


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Jim McGreevey (D-N.J.)

McGreevey resigned as Governor of New Jersey in 2004 after the threat of a sexual harassment lawsuit from Golan Cipel, an Israeli man who briefly served as a close homeland security adviser to McGreevey after the governor’s election despite limited qualifications. In his resignation, McGreevey came out as gay and confessed that the two had engaged in an affair while he was in office.


Because McGreevey delayed his resignation by three months, he became the first openly gay governor in U.S. history. After leaving office, he obtained a Master of Divinity degree in an unsuccessful effort to become an Episcopal priest and currently heads a New Jersey nonprofit meant to help ex-prisoners reenter society and obtain jobs.