A day after admitting he posed in a racist photo 35 years ago, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is trying fit the fallout back in Pandora’s box, now claiming the man in the image isn’t him.
“I am not the person in that photo,” he said.
The moderate Democrat is resisting widespread calls to resign after a photograph surfaced that allegedly depicts Northam wearing offensive garb. In the image, one man is in blackface, another is wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume.
The image is from a 1984 yearbook page dedicated to Northam’s time at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Soon after the photograph was published on Friday, Northam admitted to posing for the picture, and apologized for his actions. Now, he wants to take it back — while continuing to apologize for the “disgusting, offensive, racist” content that appeared on his page.
Northam said he did not purchase the yearbook, and Friday was the first time he saw the photo.
“I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe,” he said. “The photo appears with others I submitted on a page with my name on it… In the hours since I made my statement yesterday, I reflected with my family and classmates from the time and affirmed my conclusion that I am not the person in that photo.”
Since the image first was published in a far-right website (after Northam made comments about reproductive rights legislation that angered anti-abortion advocates), several of his allies have joined his opponents in calls for the governor to step down. Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe condemned Northam’s behavior as “inexcusable.” Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, as well as the Democratic Caucuses in both the state House and Senate, called on Northam to resign.
The state’s two US senators — moderate Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine — have stayed on the sidelines since the allegations came to light. But should Northam lose their support he’d have few allies in his corner. The Democratic National Committee joined the chorus calling for Northam’s resignation as he spoke Saturday afternoon.
Still, Northam says he will serve to the end of his term in 2020.
“I took an oath to uphold this office and serve the people of this commonwealth to the best of my ability,” he said. “As long as I believe I can effectively fulfill that task, I intend to continue doing the business of Virginia.”
The governor’s response has been all over the map — it’s not helping him
The last 24 hours have been a fast-paced, puzzling turn of events, made only more confusing by Northam himself.
First, Northam explicitly admitted to being in the photograph, and he even apologized for his decision to pose in such an overtly racist getup.
“Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive,” his statement Friday began. “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.”
Later that evening he released a video response over Twitter, where he once again owned up to his actions and said he had no intention of resigning. “I accept responsibility for my past actions, and I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust,” he said.
My fellow Virginians, earlier today I released a statement apologizing for behavior in my past that falls far short of the standard you set for me when you elected me to be your governor. I believe you deserve to hear directly from me. pic.twitter.com/1rSw1oxfrX
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) February 2, 2019
Calls for Northam to step down, meanwhile, were reaching a critical mass level among both Democrats and Republicans. By Saturday morning rumors circulated that Northam planned to hold a press conference at noon, where he would publicly step down.
Instead, Northam reportedly turned to state Democrats Saturday morning, claiming he has no memory of posing in the racist costume, and he refuses to resign because of it.
“There is no way that I have ever been in a KKK uniform — I am not the person in that uniform — and I am not the person to the right,” he said. “You remember these things.”
In his press conference, Northam recounted an instance where he says he does remember wearing blackface — as part of a Michael Jackson costume at a dance contest in San Antonio — adding that he would remember if there was another instance.
The governor reportedly even went as far as asking fellow classmates to come forward and fess up to being the ones pictured. But given the intense backlash that Northam is facing, it’s hard to believe that anyone would willingly come forward to answer the governor’s call.
But even if Northam isn’t pictured, as he claims, then he’s going to have answer to why the image made it on his yearbook page in the first place.
Far-right outlets ran the image after Northam made controversial remarks on abortion
Northam was already having a rough week days ago — with conservatives and right-wing trolls decrying that he supported “infanticide.” Remarkably, it only got worse from there.
It all started with a radio interview Wednesday in which Northam was asked about a longshot bill in the Virginia House that would roll back restrictions on access to late-term abortion. The bill’s sponsor, Del. Kathy Tran, had been the target of conservative-led attacks days earlier for saying the legislation would allow abortions up until the point of delivery, if the woman’s life was seriously at risk.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist, appeared to describe exactly how such a procedure would be carried out — in the rare instances when when a woman goes into delivery of a fetus that doctors considered to be not viable: “The infant would be delivered, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
As Vox’s Anna North explains, the Virginia bill proposes to roll back certain restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period for any abortion and requirements that second-trimester abortions be administered in a hospital.
The controversy has centered on a provision concerning third-trimester abortions. Under current Virginia law, in order for a patient to terminate a pregnancy in the third trimester, three doctors must certify that continuing the pregnancy would likely cause the patient’s death or “substantially and irremediably impair” her mental or physical health. The new bill would reduce the number of doctors to one, and remove the “substantially and irremediably” qualifier — abortions would be allowed in cases where a mother’s mental or physical health is threatened, even if the damage might not be irreversible.
But Northam’s comments were quickly taken out of context to suggest that he supported killing babies.
Days later Big League Politics, a far-right news site founded by former Breitbart editor-in-chief Patrick Howley, was apparently the first to dig up the old medical yearbook and publish the blackface photo. The Virginia-Pilot soon picked up the photograph and confirmed it’s authenticity, followed by a rush of national outlets publishing the same image.
If Northam were to resign, his successor Justin Fairfax would be the state’s second black governor
Should Northam give in to pressure and resign, his successor would be Justin Fairfax, who currently serves as Virginia’s lieutenant governor. Fairfax is just the second African American elected to statewide office in Virginia, and if he assumes Northam’s position, he would be only the second black governor in the commonwealth’s history, after L. Douglas Wilder, who led Virginia from 1990 to 1994.
Fairfax raised his national profile by campaigning alongside other black politicians in the south, namely Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, both of whom were unsuccessful in their gubernatorial bids.
He has also gained notoriety for standing up to the vestiges of slavery that continue to be celebrated across Virginia. Last year he refused to participate in a ceremony honoring Stonewall Jackson. And again this year, he opted out of paying tribute to Robert E. Lee.
“I believe there are certain people in history we should honor that way in the Senate . . . and I don’t believe that he is one of them,” Fairfax, a descendant of slaves, told the Washington Post after he bowed out of his duties earlier this year. “I think it’s very divisive to do what was done there, particularly in light of the history that we’re now commemorating — 400 years since the first enslaved Africans came to the commonwealth of Virginia.”