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Virginia governor refuses to step down despite flood of calls for his resignation for racist photo

Virginia governor refuses to step down despite flood of calls for his resignation for racist photo
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pauses Saturday during a news conference in Richmond, Va. He is under fire for a photo that appeared in his college yearbook. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam faced the public Saturday and defiantly said he will not resign because he does not believe it is him in a racist photograph from his 1984 medical school yearbook.

“I am not either of those people in that photo,” Northam, a Democrat, told media gathered at the Executive Mansion, referring to the image of a person dressed in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe on his yearbook page.

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Northam said Friday was the first time he had seen the photo, which he called "shocking and horrific."

But he alluded to other actions in his past and disclosed that in 1984 he won a dance contest in San Antonio in which he wore dark shoe polish on his cheeks as part of a Michael Jackson costume.

“I have made mistakes in my past, but I am a person of my word. I have great friends on both sides of the aisle,” Northam said. “This has been hurtful and that's why I reached out and apologized. . . . I will work hard to maintain their faith in me and my ability to lead and hopefully together we'll move forward.”

Northam said if he believed he wasn't able to function efficiently as governor, he would revisit the matter.

His explanation runs counter to his public apology Friday, when he acknowledged that he appeared in what he called a "clearly racist" image.

“My first instinct is to reach out and apologize because this was so hurtful,” he said. “After I did that, I had a chance to reach out to classmates and my roommates, and I am convinced that's not my picture.”

The legislative Black Caucus repeated its call for Northam's resignation after his remarks Saturday. "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 in a statement. "Changing his public story today now casts further doubt on his ability to regain that trust."

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."

Northam said he selected three other photos that appear on the page but not the offensive image. He said he didn't purchase the yearbook and did not know the photo was on his page.

“He should have said that yesterday then,” said Virginia state Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who was among the lawmakers who received a call from Northam on Saturday morning. “He just told me he didn't think it's him. And I said, 'Ralph, this is a day late and a dollar short. It's too late.’ ”

Two classmates of Northam's at Eastern Virginia Medical School said Saturday that they had never seen him in costumes like those that appear in the photo on his yearbook page. However, they were at a loss to explain how a mix-up might have occurred that would result in the racist image being placed on his page in error, because students were responsible for submitting their own photos.

Tobin Naidorf, who also graduated in 1984 and is now a gastroenterologist in Alexandria, Va., said he did not recall the exact procedure for submitting photos to the yearbook staff. However, he said he was the only person who could have submitted the family photos that appeared on his own page.

Walter Broadnax Jr.'s page in the Eastern Virginia yearbook included a photo of his deceased grandmother beneath the heading, "These are the people who have helped keep the dream alive."

"Pictures as close as that, I would have had to have chosen those. I can't speak for Ralph, though," said Broadnax, whose entry also included a favorite Langston Hughes poem. He doesn't remember how the yearbook was created or even seeing it once it was published.

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Pamela Kopelove, who is credited in the yearbook as its editor, did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

Northam was defying an avalanche of calls to step down from the office he had assumed not 13 months ago. On Friday afternoon, the Republican Party of Virginia issued an early call for Northam's resignation, followed by national Democrats, including a host of 2020 contenders. Every group allied with the governor, from Planned Parenthood to the state Democratic party and Democratic leadership in the General Assembly, urged Northam to leave office. A crucial group, the legislative Black Caucus, joined the chorus calling for his resignation after a tense meeting Friday night with Northam.

Even home-state champions who regarded him as a dear friend — including immediate predecessor and patron Terry McAuliffe, himself a potential Democratic presidential candidate — said Northam had to go.

By 9 a.m., friends who hoped he could weather the crisis were wondering whether he could survive and avoid becoming the first Virginia governor to resign since the Civil War.

More than a dozen protesters braved the frigid air to protest outside the governor's mansion, holding signs such as "Blackface, no place" and "Step down and do Virginia a favor." They chanted "Resign now!"

“There's no question the tide turned,” said one ally, who had been briefed by the governor's senior staff and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the private discussions.

Northam and his inner circle had been preparing to fight as news of the photograph broke Friday afternoon — he issued a written apology, then a video mea culpa. They planned a “reconciliation tour,” taking him across the commonwealth to say he was sorry in person, his ally said.

“Then everything changed between 6 and 9 p.m.,” the ally said, as national Democrats unleashed a torrent of calls for his resignation.

On Friday, Northam, 59, released a statement and a video in which he admitted to appearing in the photo, although he did not say which costume he wore.

“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” he said. “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.”

As cable television devoted hours to the controversy, social media lit up with #ResignRalph hashtags and the drumbeat continued. Calls to resign also came from Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.

“Black face in any manner is always racist and never okay,” tweeted Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP. “No matter the party affiliation, we can not stand for such behavior, which is why the @NAACP is calling for the resignation of Virginia Governor @RalphNortham.”

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The photo reverberated across the country and shook Virginians, who have struggled with a long and difficult legacy around race.

“Virginia's history is unfortunately replete with the scars and unhealed wounds caused by racism, bigotry and discrimination,” said Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat who plans to run for governor in 2021. “It is imperative that Governor Northam hears and truly listens to those who are hurt by this image as he considers what comes next.”

Herring's remarks, which stopped short of calling for Northam's resignation, closely echoed sentiments expressed by the state's U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, both Democrats.

Members of the state legislature’s Black Caucus spoke of how they felt profoundly let down by Northam, who had worked alongside them on key legislation. “We feel complete betrayal,” the caucus said in a statement. “The legacy of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow has been an albatross around the necks of African Americans for over 400 years. These pictures rip off the scabs of an excruciatingly painful history and are a piercing reminder of this nation's sins. Those who would excuse the pictures are just as culpable.”

The caucus was also grappling with revelations in another yearbook, from Northam's time at Virginia Military Institute. That book listed one of his nicknames as "Coonman," which some members interpreted as a racial slur.

A Northam spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the nickname's meaning.

Hours after his apology, the governor released a video that repeated his contrition but said he intended to serve out the remaining three years of his term.

If Northam were to resign, he would be succeeded by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would serve the remaining years in Northam's term and then be eligible to run for a full four-year term.

Fairfax would hold the highest office in a state in which his ancestors were once enslaved. An Ivy League-educated lawyer, Fairfax carried a copy of the manumission papers of one of his ancestors in his suit pocket when he was sworn in as lieutenant governor.

The image in the yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School was on a page with other photos of Northam and personal information about the future governor. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, graduated from the medical school in Norfolk in 1984 after earning an undergraduate degree from VMI.

Vozzella and Schneider write for the Washington Post.

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