A Democratic senator from Northern Virginia on Friday broke with his caucus and called for Gov. Ralph Northam to remain in office amid a scandal that started with a racist photo in Northam's medical school yearbook.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, said in a news release he won't call for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Attorney General Mark Herring or anyone else to resign "until it is obvious that they have committed a crime in office or their ability to serve is irredeemably compromised."
Petersen said the photo in Northam's yearbook "truly shocked the conscience," but said he chose to wait a week and talk to friends and constituents before making a statement about Northam. He held a town hall meeting at the largest African-American church in his district, First Baptist of Vienna.
On Friday, Feb. 1, Northam admitted he was in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photo, which showed one man wearing blackface and another man wearing Ku Klux Klan garb. But the next day, he said he was sure he was not in the photo. He said he had dressed in blackface at another point in 1984 to play Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
Northam's scandal was followed in a surreal week by a sexual assault allegation against Fairfax, which the lieutenant governor denies, and then an admission from Attorney General Mark Herring that he wore blackface at a college party to portray a rapper.
While virtually every major elected Democrat in Virginia, including Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, called for Northam to resign, they did not call for Herring to resign.
On Thursday, The Virginian-Pilot reported that Senate Republican Majority Leader Tommy Norment was the managing editor of a 1968 yearbook at publicly funded Virginia Military Institute that included racist photos and slurs, including blackface. Norment responded by saying the use of blackface is horrible and he condemned it and could not associate himself with every photo and entry in the yearbook.
Petersen said in the statement that he will push his colleagues in the House and Senate to shift focus back to legislative priorities, and said the scandals could be used as "restorative justice."
"I recognize that my conclusions may not be popular and may be in the minority," Petersen said. "I am comfortable with that fact and fully accept any consequences."
On Feb. 1, the day Northam said he was in the yearbook photo and apologized, the Senate Democratic Caucus said in a statement that "with heavy hearts" they were asking him to step down.
“After seeing the yearbook pictures that surfaced of Governor Northam today, we were shocked, saddened and offended. Virginia has a complicated racial history and past, and those pictures certainly reflect that," the caucus statement said.
The next day, a caucus statement said Democratic senators were standing with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus in continuing the call for Northam to resign.
“Regardless of personal relationships with Governor Northam, his past and recent actions have led to pain and a loss of trust with Virginians," the caucus statement said. "He is no longer the best person to lead our state through the healing process. We feel it is in the best interest of the commonwealth that he resign."