RICHMOND, Va.—Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s insistence on Feb. 3 that no, on further consideration, that’s not him in the racist photo that appeared in his 1984 medical school yearbook did nothing to quell the clamor from his own party for him to resign.
In fact, the Democrat’s stunning about-face—at a bizarre news conference at which he admitted putting on blackface decades ago and appeared to briefly entertain the notion of doing the moonwalk for reporters—might have made things worse.
Northam on Feb. 1 apologized for appearing in a photograph that featured a man in blackface and a second person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. He did not say which costume he was wearing, but in a video he posted on Twitter, he said he could not “undo the harm my behavior caused then and today.”
On Feb. 2, though, the governor reversed course and said he wasn’t in the picture after all.
Northam said he had not seen the photo before Feb. 1, since he had not bought the yearbook or been involved in its preparation 35 years ago.
“It has taken time for me to make sure that it’s not me, but I am convinced, I am convinced that I am not in that picture,” he told reporters at the executive mansion in Richmond, calling the picture offensive and horrific.
Northam, who is one year into his four-year term, again rejected demands that he step down.
While talking with reporters, Northam admitted he once used shoe polish to put on blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a 1984 dance contest in Texas, when he was in the Army.
Northam said he regrets that he didn’t understand “the harmful legacy of an action like that.”
Asked by a reporter if he could still do Jackson’s famous moonwalk, Northam looked at the floor as if thinking about demonstrating it. His wife put a stop to it, noting the “inappropriate circumstances.”
Calls for Resignation
His shifting explanations did little or nothing to sway prominent Democrats calling on him to resign.
Both of Virginia’s U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, joined the dean of Virginia’s congressional delegation, Rep. Bobby Scott, in saying in a statement Saturday night that they no longer believe Northam can effectively serve as governor.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Feb. 3 that Northam—who served as McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor—would eventually resign.
“Ralph will do the right thing for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe said. “He’s going to do the right thing.”
His refusal to step down could signal a potentially long and bruising fight between Northam and virtually all of the state’s Democratic establishment.
Groups calling for his resignation include the Virginia Democratic Party and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. Top Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly also urged Northam to step down, as have many declared and potential Democratic presidential candidates.
If Northam does resign, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would become the second African-American governor in the state’s history. In a statement, Fairfax said the state needs leaders who can unite people, but he stopped short of calling for Northam’s departure.
Fairfax said he “cannot condone actions” from Northam’s past that “suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping, and intimidation.”
Northam was pushed repeatedly by reporters to explain why he issued an apology if he wasn’t in the photograph. He conceded that people might have difficulty believing his shifting statements.
“My first intention … was to reach out and apologize,” he said, adding that he recognized that people would be offended by the photo. But after studying the picture and consulting with classmates, Northam said, “I am convinced that is not my picture.”
But McAuliffe said Northam’s explanation was too little, too late.
“If it wasn’t him in the photo, he should’ve said that on Friday,” he said Feb. 3. “Instinctively, you know if you put black paint on your face. You know if you put a hood on. And so if it isn’t you, you come out immediately and say, ‘This is not me.'”
Ultimately, McAuliffe said, “It doesn’t matter whether he was in the photo or not in the photo at this point. We have to close that chapter. We have to move Virginia forward.”
One of the few voices backing Northam on Feb. 3 was former Virginia Rep. Jim Moran, a Democrat who served in Congress from 1991 to 2015.
Moran told ABC’s “This Week” that Northam’s record—including his support of Medicaid expansion and of public schools in minority neighborhoods—shows that the embattled governor is a friend of African-Americans and that he should ride out the storm.
“I think it is a rush to judgment before we know all of the facts and before we’ve considered all of the consequences,” said Moran, who is white. “I don’t think these public shamings really get us all that much.”
Walt Broadnax, one of two black students who graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School with Northam, said Feb. 2 that he didn’t buy the 1984 yearbook or see it until decades later.
Broadnax defended his former classmate and said Northam is not a racist, adding that the school would not have tolerated someone going to a party in blackface.
The yearbook images were first published Feb. 1 by the conservative news outlet Big League Politics.
The scars from centuries of racial oppression are still raw in a state that was once home to the capital of the Confederacy. Heated debates about Confederate statues are going on after a deadly 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. A state holiday honoring Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is a perennial source of discontent.
Northam spent years courting the black community in the run-up to his 2017 race for governor, building relationships that helped him win both the primary and the general election. He is a member of a predominantly black church.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist, has recently come under fire from Republicans who have accused him of backing infanticide after he said he supported a bill loosening restrictions on late-term abortions.
In a tweet late Feb. 2, President Donald Trump called Northam’s actions related to the photo and abortion debate “unforgiveable!”
Late last month, Florida’s secretary of state resigned after photos from a 2005 Halloween party showed him in blackface while dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim.
By Alan Suderman. Associated Press writer Ben Finley contributed to this report.