Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s apology over a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page has failed to quell a firestorm of bipartisan calls for his immediate resignation.
The list included former vice president Joe Biden, Terry McAuliffe, Northam’s Democratic predecessor as governor, and a half-dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood and state Democratic lawmakers.
Virginia’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, each issued statements stopping short of calling out right for his departure, but saying Northam should carefully consider his next move.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the newspaper in the state capital, said in an editorial that Northam should step down.
“He is by all accounts a decent and considerate man,” the editorial said. “And yet, his poor judgment has undermined his standing with Virginians in ways that we believe will permanently impair his ability to act as an effective governor. He should resign and return to his profession as a physician, with the thanks of those he has served as a state senator, lieutenant governor, and for the past year, governor.”
The governor has acknowledged that he is one of the two men in the yearbook photo — one in blackface and the other in a full white Ku Klux Klan robe, complete with pointed hood.
“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,” Northam said in a written statement Friday, vowing to push forward and work to mend the damage he’d caused.
“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,” Northam said. “But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.”
“I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused,” the statement read. “I am ready to do that important work.”
Northam later tweeted a video apology saying that the “racist” photo “doesn’t reflect” the person he is now. He also said he wanted to serve out his four-year term.
A second yearbook photo is from Northam’s time at the Virginia Military Institute, which makes its yearbooks available online. Page 90 of the 1981 edition shows the nicknames “Goose” and “Coonman” underneath Northam’s school photo. Northam has yet to address the VMI yearbook.
The calls for him to step down erupted almost immediately after The Washington Post published a story on the photo, which was first discovered Friday afternoon by the conservative news outlet Big League Politics.
His resignation would propel Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, into the governorship. Fairfax is only the second African-American to win statewide office in Virginia. Northam’s term was set to end in 2022.
Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, wrote on Twitter that if Northam steps down he will be the first Virginia governor since the Civil War not to complete his term. Sabato also said that if Fairfax finishes Northam’s unexpired term, he will remain eligible to run for a full term in 2021. Under state law, governors are not allowed to run for re-election.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, the state House Democratic Caucus and the state Senate Democratic Caucus called on Northam to resign late Friday, along with several key progressive groups that have been some of the governor’s closest political allies.
State Sen. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, a close ally of Northam and longtime African-American lawmaker, described a hastily called conference call with black leaders around the state as “intense.”
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which met with Northam Friday evening, said in a statement they appreciate his service, but added: “It is clear that he can no longer effectively serve as governor.”
“It is time for him to resign, so that Virginia can begin the process of healing,” the group said.
Jack Wilson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, called the photos “wholly inappropriate,” adding that “racism has no place in Virginia.”
State Sen. Richard H. Stuart, a Republican and one of the governor’s closest friends, said he had not been able to talk to him about the issue and did not know what to make of it, but stood by him, The Washington Post reported.
“He’s my friend and I will always stand up for him,” said Stuart, according to the newspaper.
Several Democratic presidential hopefuls and potential presidential candidates, including former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Kamala Harris, of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, Sen. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, and former HUD secretary Julian Castro., also called on Northam to step down.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson said, “Black face in any manner is always racist and never okay.”
“No matter the party affiliation, we can not stand for such behavior,” he tweeted, adding that the organization was calling for Northam’s departure.
Leana Wen, Planned Parenthood’s president, likewise called for the governor’s resignation, saying, “There is no place for Gov. Ralph Northam’s racist actions or language.”
Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina who recently spoke out against Republican Rep. Steve King’s remarks about white supremacism, also denounced Northam’s yearbook fiasco.
“To be clear, while a quick apology is good, it does not excuse the choices made by @GovernorVA as an adult enrolled in medical school,” Scott wrote on Twitter. “The people of VA will make their voices heard;I hope they will shout far&wide that there are consequences for such showcases of prejudice&hate.”
Last week, Florida’s then-secretary of state Michael Ertel resigned after photos from a 2005 Halloween party showed him in blackface while dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim.
Northam, who previously served as lieutenant governor for Gov. Terry McAuliffe, ran for governor in 2017 in the aftermath of the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, which left one woman dead and several injured after a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters.
The rally drew neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right, many of whom carried Confederate flags or wore clothing with Nazi or KKK insignias.
The race was one of Virginia’s most racially charged in recent memory and ended with Northam beating Republican Ed Gillespie. Voters were peppered with ads about the Charlottesville unrest.