Gov. Ralph Northam refused to resign from his office Saturday and instead attempted to ride out a scandal that is threatening to end his political career by denying he was one of the two men in a racist photo that appeared in his medical school yearbook.
Resisting intense pressure from his Democratic allies to step aside, Northam, 59, said in an afternoon news conference that he was not in the photo from his yearbook page showing one man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes.
“This was not my picture. I was not in that costume either as blackface or as KKK. And it’s not me,” Northam said.
The push for Northam to step aside escalated Saturday night when Virginia’s senior Democratic leaders, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd, issued a joint statement urging him to resign.
“After we watched his press conference today, we called Governor Northam to tell him that we no longer believe he can effectively serve as governor of Virginia and that he must resign,” said the two former governors and the dean of the state’s congressional delegation.
Later Saturday, President Donald Trump weighed in, criticizing Northam for changing his story about the yearbook photo and for making controversial comments about an abortion bill earlier in the week. “Unforgivable!” Trump tweeted.
The photo that surfaced Friday appeared on Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook for Eastern Virginia Medical School, which Northam attended while he was in his mid-20s.
Though he denied being in the yearbook photo, Northam admitted that he used shoe polish to darken his face for a Michael Jackson dance contest that same year in San Antonio, where he did his medical residency.
Northam’s shifting explanations threatened to plunge the state into a leadership crisis at the midway point of the General Assembly’s legislative session. Democrats and Republicans alike have demanded Northam’s resignation as lawmakers prepare to return to Richmond to continue their work on the state budget and critical tax policy issues.
Northam’s comments Saturday run counter to his first statement Friday night, in which the governor apologized for appearing in the photo and for the “hurt” it had caused.
On Saturday, Northam suggested that he had been overzealous in his initial apology, saying he did not have a copy of the yearbook because he never bought one and was unaware of what was on his page. After taking more time to look at the photo, Northam said, he concluded he was not in it. And he said he would be willing to use facial recognition software to try to prove it.
“I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe,” Northam said. The governor asked that his colleagues take him at his word and allow him to take the more difficult path of staying in office and having an “honest conversation about racial injustice.”
“My responsibility is to listen, to learn and to continue to grow as a man and as a leader,” Northam said.
Northam’s new position on the photo did not appear to improve his standing among his Democratic allies.
For the first time, Attorney General Mark Herring said Saturday that Northam should resign and pledged his full support to Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a 39-year-old lawyer and relative newcomer to state politics who would become the Virginia’s second African-American governor if Northam steps down.
“I have spoken with Lieutenant Governor Fairfax and assured him that, should he ascend to the governorship, he will have my complete support and commitment to ensuring his success and the success of our commonwealth,” Herring said.
Herring’s statement carried extra significance because he has already announced he’ll run for governor in 2021, setting up a potential primary contest with Fairfax for the Democratic nomination. If Fairfax serves out the remaining three years of Northam’s term, he would be able to run as an incumbent for an additional four-year term. Virginia governors have to leave office after four years, but the extraordinary circumstances raise the possibility that Fairfax could serve for seven years.
Fairfax has not called for Northam to resign. The lieutenant governor released a statement Saturday saying Northam had offered him a personal apology.
“While his career has been marked by service to children, soldiers and constituents, I cannot condone the actions from his past that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping and intimidation,” Fairfax said.
In his first year as governor, Northam signed legislation to expand Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of low-income Virginians and announced Virginia had landed a piece of Amazon’s headquarters expansion. That fast start could come to an abrupt end.
Northam’s promise as a statewide Democratic candidate stemmed largely from his sterling résumé as a former state senator, pediatric neurologist and Army veteran who led the Honor Court at Virginia Military Institute before going to medical school. But the blackface scandal showed there may be darker elements to his rural, Eastern Shore roots that also featured prominently in Northam’s political biography. Though the photo is seen as “abhorrent” today, Northam said, that behavior was common in the “place and time where I grew up.”
Northam said he is sure he is not in the yearbook photo because of his “vivid” memory of blackening his face to do the moonwalk in the Michael Jackson dance contest.
“I take responsibility for the issue in San Antonio,” said Northam, adding that both examples of blackface are wrong, but he hopes people can see a “contrast” between the dance contest and the yearbook photo.
Northam said he submitted three of the four photos that appeared on his yearbook page, but not the racist one. He did not offer an explanation of how it got there, but he said classmates have told him it’s possible photos were mixed up during the yearbook’s production.
The governor was also asked why the nickname “coonman” appeared next to his photo in a VMI yearbook. Northam said it was a nickname classmates had given him, and those classmates would have to be the ones to explain its origin.
Northam said he feels Fairfax will be “ready” to serve if he resigns. But the governor said he will remain in office “as long as I feel that I can lead.”
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus had already said it feels Northam can no longer do that. In a statement released Saturday before Northam had finished speaking, the caucus said his ability to govern has been “eviscerated.”
“In light of his public admission and apology for his decision to appear in the photo, he has irrevocably lost the faith and trust of the people he was elected to serve,” the caucus said. “Changing his public story today now casts further doubt on his ability to regain that trust.”
Republican legislative leaders and Herring could try to initiate constitutional proceedings to force Northam from office, though no one has publicly threatened to oust the governor against his will.
A.E. Dick Howard, the main architect of the state’s rewritten 1971 Constitution, said the provision to remove a governor from office has never been tested, but was intended to deal with physical or mental incapacity, not a crisis of credibility.