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Virginia governor Ralph Northam on Saturday vowed to remain in office despite widespread calls for his resignation after a racist photo surfaced on a school yearbook page. His refusal to step down could signal a potentially long and bruising fight between Northam and his former supporters.
Northam said at a news conference he had prematurely apologized for appearing in what he called a “horrific” picture of a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. The photo appeared on Northam’s profile page in his 1984 medical school yearbook.
The Democratic governor said he had never even seen the yearbook before Friday and that he was blindsided by what was on his page.
“That is not my picture. That is not my person in that picture,” Northam told reporters at the Executive Mansion in Richmond.
While he acknowledged apologizing on Friday, Northam said he had no actual recollection of wearing such racist garb. He spoke to classmates from medical school who agreed. He said he was in the process of obtaining a yearbook so that he could try to determine how the photo even got on his profile page.
It remained unclear whether Northam’s remarks would calm the wave of criticism sparked by the yearbook’s contents.
Nevertheless, Northam admitted to “mistakes in my past,” including wearing shoe polish on his cheeks while wearing a Michael Jackson costume at a dance contest in 1984.
Before he spoke, the Virginia Democratic Party issued a statement demanding Northam’s immediate resignation. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, the state House Democratic Caucus and the state Senate Democratic Caucus all 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 yearbook images were first published Friday afternoon by the conservative news outlet Big League Politics. The Virginian-Pilot later obtained a copy from Eastern Virginia Medical School, which Northam attended. The photo shows two people looking at the camera — one in blackface wearing a hat, bow tie and plaid pants; the other in a full Ku Klux Klan robe.
An Associated Press reporter saw the yearbook page and confirmed its authenticity at the medical school.
In his first apology on Friday, Northam called the costume he wore “clearly racist and offensive,” but he didn’t say which one he had worn.
He later issued a video statement saying he was “deeply sorry” but still committed to serving the “remainder of my term.”
“I accept responsibility for my past actions and I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust,” Northam said.
Northam’s departure would mean current Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat who is only the second African-American to win statewide office in Virginia, would be the next governor. Northam’s term was set to end in 2022.
The scars from centuries of racial oppression are still raw in a state that was once home to the capital of the Confederacy.
Virginians continue to struggle with the state’s legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and Massive Resistance, the anti-school segregation push. Heated debates about the Confederate statues are ongoing after a deadly 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. A state holiday honoring Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is a perennially source of discontent.
Northam spent years actively courting the black community in the lead up to his 2017 gubernatorial run, building relationships that helped him win both the primary and the general election. He is a member of a predominantly black church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where he grew up.
“It’s a matter of relationships and trust. That’s not something that you build overnight,” Northam told the AP during a 2017 campaign stop while describing his relationship with the black community.
Northam, a folksy pediatric neurologist who is personal friends with many GOP lawmakers, has recently come under fire from Republicans who have accused him of backing infanticide after he said he supported a bill loosening restrictions on late-term abortions.
Last week, Florida’s secretary of state resigned after photos from a 2005 Halloween party showed him in blackface while dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim.
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