Gov. Northam denies he’s in racist photo, refuses to resign

By Karen Kirk:

Despite multiple calls for his resignation, Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam refused to resign on Saturday after he first acknowledged then denied being in a yearbook photo that surfaced Friday showing one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

“I believe that I am not either of the people in the photo,” Northam said at a Saturday news conference in Richmond. He said that he had not previously seen the 1984 yearbook and had never purchased it and that when his staff first showed him the photo, he conceded that “the most likely explanation was that it was indeed me in the photo.”

He did say that he won a dance contest in San Antonio, Texas, the same year dressed as Michael Jackson and “darkening my face” with a little bit of shoe polish. “I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that,” he said.

“Today, I am not ready to ask Virginians to grant me their forgiveness for my past actions. I also do not fully expect that they will immediately believe my account of these events. Right now, I am simply asking for the opportunity to demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that the person I was is not the man I am today. I am asking for the opportunity to earn your forgiveness.

“If I were to listen to voices calling on me to resign my office today, I could spare myself from the difficult  path that lies ahead. I could avoid an honest conversation about harmful actions from my past. I cannot in good conscience choose the path that would be easier to me in an effort to duck my responsibility to reconcile. I took an oath to uphold this office and serve the people of this Commonwealth to the best of my ability. As long as I believe I can effectively fulfill that task, I intend to continue doing the business of Virginia.”

The racist photo (above) is on page 105 of the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School. It was on a page with other pictures and information on Northam who graduated from the medical school in Norfolk in 1984 and became a pediatric neurologist. He was elected governor in 2017.

In a video released on Friday, Northam apologized “for behavior in my past that falls far short of the standard you set for me when you elected me to be your governor.” He said, “That photo and the racist and offensive attitudes it represents, does not reflect the person that I am today. …”

Starting on Friday, there were nonstop calls for Northam to resign, including by former Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, state Senate and House Democrats and Virginia’s legislative Black Caucus.

Gov. Ralph Northam. Photo from Northam’s official website.

They issued this statement: “The House Democratic Caucus has conferred with the Senate Democratic Caucus and the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus and concluded that we must call for the governor’s resignation for the good of the Commonwealth.  Governing must be a first priority and politics a distant second.  We members of the General Assembly are in the midst of intense debate about taxes, our budget and social policies—all of which are crucial to Virginia’s near and long-term future progress.  Unity and practicality call for our governor to step down and allow us to heal while moving forward.  This is a painful and difficult time for all Virginians. Together we will pull through.”

Also on Friday, the chairs of the Democratic Committees of Alexandria City, Arlington County, Fairfax County, and Falls Church City issued the following joint statement:

“The behavior depicted in the photo is abhorrent and repulsive at any age. There is no place for hate and racism in a multicultural, pluralistic Virginia. With the dark and painful history of slavery, racism, and segregation in Virginia and our country, we expect the leader of our Commonwealth to embody the fight for justice, fairness, and equality for all. Governor Northam can no longer do so. We urge Governor Northam to resign. We refuse to place party loyalty above our core principles.”

National Democrats, including presidential hopefuls Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.); Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.); Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), and Julián Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, joined the chorus calling for Northam to resign.

Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, released a statement that said Northam no longer has the public trust and should step down. “His past actions are completely antithetical to everything the Democratic Party stands for,” Perez said. “Virginians and people across the country deserve better from their leaders, and it is clear that Ralph Northam has lost their trust and his ability to govern.”

If Northam changes his mind and decides to resign, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is black, would succeed him and also be able to run for a full term after Northam’s term ends in 2021. Fairfax would serve the rest of Northam’s term and be eligible to run for a full four-year term.

A Northam resignation would be the first one of a governor in Virginia since Republican Gov. Henry Horatio Wells resigned in 1869.