WASHINGTON — Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said Saturday 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 his resignation.
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 of him from 1984 that surfaced on Friday.
Democrats, including three 2020 presidential candidates; his home state’s Democratic party; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and former Vice President Joe Biden, all earlier called on Northam to resign, as did many Republicans.
“I am not the person in the photo that caused a stir yesterday,” Northam said. “That’s not me in that photo.”
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 are of a young Northam in a cowboy hat, one of him seated before a convertible and a formal head shot. All appear under his name.
Northam, standing by his wife Pam, said he believed it was possible 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 — darkening his face to dress up as pop star Michael Jackson in 1984 for a dance contest in San Antonio. 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. “Actions in my past that were hurtful. But like Virginia I have made progress.”
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.
EVMS’s president, in a statement posted on the school’s 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. “We recognize the need to address and rectify any issues of racism and discrimination that arise, at any point — and will continue a long tradition of action to build a strong culture of diversity and inclusion.”
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 Trump’s positions on immigration and Confederate statues, was heralded as a bellwether of opposition to the Trump administration.
The appearance of the photo immediately sparked criticism from three Democrats running for president. Senator Kamala Harris of California, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro called for Northam to step down, as did his home state’s Democratic party.
In an editorial, the Richmond Times-Dispatch said the governor “must resign.” So did Northam’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, another Democrat.
“This has been a heartbreaking day. Ralph Northam is my friend and he served well as my Lt. Governor and as Governor,” McAuliffe said on Twitter. “The situation that he has put himself and the Commonwealth of Virginia in is untenable. It’s time for Ralph to step down, and for the Commonwealth to move forward.”
Northam found himself the center of a separate media firestorm earlier in the week over whether the state should ease restrictions on abortion, making remarks on third trimester abortions in a radio interview. And on Friday night, CBS reported that a racial slur was listed as one of Northam’s nicknames in his yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute, from which he graduated.
Former Virginia governor Doug Wilder, who served from 1990 to 1994 and was the first black person elected as governor of a US 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.
Had Northam resigned, he would have been succeeded by Justin Fairfax, the state’s lieutenant governor. Fairfax, 39, an attorney and former congressional aide, was the second African American to be elected to statewide office in Virginia.
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.