Virginia Governor Refuses to Quit Over Racist Yearbook Photo

(Bloomberg) -- Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said he won’t resign despite a national outcry over a racist photo from a 1984 medical school yearbook that triggered fellow Democrats to call for him to step down.

Northam made the announcement during a televised press conference at the state Executive Mansion in Richmond to address what he earlier called a “clearly racist and offensive” photograph on his medical school yearbook page from 1984 that surfaced on Friday.

“I am not the person in the photo that caused a stir yesterday,” Northam said. “That’s not me in that photo.” The denial failed to silence calls for the governor to quit.

Democrats, including multiple 2020 presidential candidates, his home state’s Democratic party, the Democratic National Committee, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Joe Biden, all earlier called on Northam to resign, as did many Republicans. The NAACP was among the groups who criticized Northam’s decision to stay in office following the press conference.

The photograph, one of four on a page from Northam’s yearbook at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, was published Friday by the conservative website Big League Politics. It shows a person wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Other photos on the page are of a young Northam in a cowboy hat, one of him seated before a convertible, and a formal head shot.

Photos Switched?

Northam, standing by his wife Pam, said he believed it was possible some photographs in the yearbook had been switched. He said he’d never bought or looked at the yearbook before Friday, was in the military during school, and was doing rotations, so didn’t participate in the publication.

Northam said he recalled -- and regretted -- using shoe polish to darken his face to dress up as pop star Michael Jackson in 1984 for a dance contest in San Antonio, Texas. The “memory of that is so vivid,” he said, that he would have remembered having been in blackface at a party at the medical school. He said he’s never worn a KKK uniform.

“My personal history mirrors that of this Commonwealth,” he said. “In the place and time where I grew up, many actions that we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace.”

Confederate Capital

Richmond, Virginia, was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and the state has struggled to move beyond that legacy. The state has a holiday for Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that’s held over the same weekend as a national holiday commemorating civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1984, when the yearbook was published, prominent black activist Jesse Jackson won the state’s Democratic primary for president, and voters in 1990 elected the state’s first black governor, Doug Wilder. The current lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, is only the second African American elected to statewide office in Virginia.

Northam said earlier he was “deeply sorry” about the decision he made decades ago to pose for a “clearly racist and offensive” picture, without indicating which person was him. Later, though, he told friends and lawmakers he didn’t think he was in the photo.

Northam said Saturday there were “numerous photos” of people in blackface in the yearbook “and none of them were me.”

School Response

The medical school’s president, in a statement posted on the EVMS website, called the photo “shockingly abhorrent and absolutely antithetical to the principles, morals and values we hold,” and said it was a “time for self-reflection and humility” for the Norfolk-based school. He said the school was convening an “urgent meeting” of senior leadership and board members.

“On behalf of our beloved EVMS, I sincerely apologize for the past transgressions of your trust,” President Richard Homan said.

Northam’s November 2017 gubernatorial victory, driven in part by voters’ reaction to the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville earlier that year and a Republican challenger who channeled President Donald Trump’s positions on immigration and Confederate statues, was heralded as a bellwether of opposition to the Trump administration.

White House Hopefuls

The appearance of the photo immediately sparked criticism from several Democrats running for president. Senator Kamala Harris of California, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro all called for Northam to step down.

In an editorial, the Richmond Times-Dispatch said the governor “must resign.” So did Northam’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, another Democrat.

The Congressional Black Caucus, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and the civil rights group NAACP said Northam’s press conference did little to change their position.

The legislative caucus said it had a “direct and honest” meeting with Northam earlier in the day. It issued a statement after the press conference to “amplify our call for the governor to resign.”

Offensive Nickname

“He has irrevocably lost the faith and trust of the people he was elected to serve,” the group said in a statement. “Changing his public story today now casts further doubt on his ability to regain that trust.”

Northam’s admission of blackening his face for a dance contest is an “example of the historical effects of institutional racism and the lack of awareness of the discrimination” against black people, the NAACP said.

During Saturday’s press conference, Northam also was forced to address a racial epithet listed as a nickname listed for him in the yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute, from which he graduated in 1981. “Coonman,” he said, was used by only two people and he didn’t know why. He said he was more commonly called “Goose” -- also noted in the yearbook -- “because his voice was changing.”

Had Northam resigned, he would have been succeeded by Fairfax. The state’s lieutenant governor, a 39-year-old attorney and former Congressional aide, has not issued any statements. Northam said Fairfax “has been very supportive.”

Former Governor Wilder, who served from 1990 to 1994 and was the first black person elected as governor of a U.S. state since Reconstruction, said earlier it was Northam’s choice whether to remain in office.

“It has never been right, in Virginia, nor anywhere else to participate in or condone such mockery or insensitive behavior and for that Governor Northam should be criticized,” Wilder, said on Twitter.

Last month, Republican Michael Ertel resigned as Florida’s secretary of state three weeks after taking office after photos surfaced of him in blackface and wearing a shirt that said “Katrina Victim” in 2005, when he was a county supervisor of elections, in a reference to those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

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