Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam rejected mounting calls for his resignation Saturday and, in a sharp reversal, said he does not believe he in fact appears in a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page as he initially thought.
“I am not the person in that photo,” Northam said at an afternoon news conference. He went on to say, “I am far from perfect and I can always strive to do more.”
“I am asking for the opportunity to earn your forgiveness,” the governor said.
Northam, who says he was 25 years old at the time, also denied that he attended the party where the photo was taken.
The statement to the media at the executive mansion in Richmond followed his apology on Friday in which he said he was one of two people in the photos that shows a man in blackface and another in full Ku Klux Klan regalia, including a hood and robe. The photo appeared in the 1984 yearbook for Eastern Virginia Medical School.
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.
In a written statement Friday, the governor had said, “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.” He also vowed to push forward and work to mend the damage he said he had caused.
In defending himself on Saturday, Northam said that he did not buy a copy of the yearbook in 1984, the year he graduated, and had never seen the page with the offensive material until Friday.
He said that when he saw the page, and noted that it was in fact his page, he thought “the most likely explanation is that it was indeed me.”
Later, he said, he “reflected with my family and classmates and affirmed that I am not the person in that photo.”
“I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe,” he told reporters.
He suggested that the photo may have been placed on his page by mistake, noting that there are numerous photos of people in blackface on other pages in the 1984 yearbook.
Northam said that dressing up as a KKK member or in blackface, however, would not ben something that he would have forgotten, and recalled being in San Antonio in 1984 when he darkened his face with shoe polish to take part in a Michael Jackson impersonation contest, which he later regretted.
In attempting to explain himself for the photo being on his yearbook page, Northam said he wanted to apologize “to the many people who have been hurt by this episode.”
“I am ready to earn your forgiveness, and I am ready to begin today,” he said.
EVMS president Richard Homan also apologized over the incident, adding, “I find no explanation for how such a picture was able to be published in the past.”
He called the picture “shockingly abhorrent and absolutely antithetical to the principles, morals and values” of the institution.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, describing the photos as “racist and contrary to fundamental American values,” called on Northam to “do the right thing so that the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia can heal and move forward.”
Former vice president Joe Biden, Terry McAuliffe, Northam’s Democratic predecessor as governor, a half-dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood and state Democratic lawmakers, called on the governor to resign.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The state’s 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.”
If Northam does not resign from office, it’s unclear what might happen next. Lawmakers could elect to examine impeachment proceedings as Virginia’s Constitution says elected officials who commit “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor” may be removed.
The wording of the law makes it unclear whether it could be used to remove Northam from office, especially since the photograph in question was from more than 30 years ago. The Constitution also outlines the line of succession, noting that the lieutenant governor would assume the duties of the office if Northam were ousted.
John Dinan, a professor who specializes in state constitutionalism and state politics at Wake Forest University, told the Washington Post that despite the vague wording, impeachment could still threaten Northam’s governorship and set up a test for the state’s Constitution.
“We do not have a clear standard of what constitutes an impeachable offense,” he told The Post, which noted that no governor in the state’s history had been removed from office through impeachment.
“The language of the Virginia impeachment provision is slightly different from the relevant language in the U.S. Constitution but is similar in providing little in the way of clear guidance for defining an impeachable offense,” Dinan 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.
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.
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 for Gov. Terry McAuliffe, ran for governor in 2017 in the aftermath of the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, 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.