Ralph Northam faced the public Saturday and defiantly said he will not resign because he does not believe that it is him in a racist photograph from his 1984 medical school yearbook.
“I am not either of those people in that photo,” Northam, a Democrat, told media gathered at the Executive Mansion, referring to the image of a person dressed in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe on his yearbook page.
Northam said Friday was the first time he’d seen the photo, which he called “shocking and horrific.”
But he alluded to other actions in his past, and disclosed that in 1984 he won a dance contest in San Antonio where he wore dark shoe polish on his cheeks as part of a Michael Jackson costume.
“I have made mistakes in my past but I am a person of my word, I have great friends on both sides of the aisle,” Northam said. “This has been hurtful and that’s why I reached out and apologized. . . . I will work hard to maintain their faith in me and my ability to lead and hopefully together we’ll move forward.”
Northam said if he felt he wasn’t able to function efficiently as governor, he would re-visit the matter.
His explanation runs counter to his public apology Friday, when he acknowledged that he appeared in what he called a “clearly racist” image.
“My first instinct is to reach out and apologize because this was so hurtful,” he said. “After I did that, I had a chance to reach out to classmates and my roommates and I am convinced, that’s not my picture.”
The legislative Black Caucus repeated its call for Northam’s resignation after his remarks Saturday. “In light of his public admission and apology for his decision to appear in the photo, he has irrevocably lost the faith and trust of the people he was elected to serve,” the caucus said in a statement. “Changing his public story today now casts further doubt on his ability to regain that trust.”
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, released a statement that said Northam no longer has the public trust and should step down. “His past actions are completely antithetical to everything the Democratic Party stands for,” Perez said. “Virginians and people across the country deserve better from their leaders, and it is clear that Ralph Northam has lost their trust and his ability to govern.”
Northam said he selected three other photos that appear on the page but not the offensive image. He said he didn’t purchase the yearbook, and did not know the photo was on his page.
“He should have said that yesterday then,” said State Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who was among the lawmakers who received a call from Northam on Saturday morning. “He just told me he didn’t think it’s him. And I said, ‘Ralph, this is a day late and a dollar short. It’s too late.'”
Two classmates of Northam’s at Eastern Virginia Medical School said Saturday that they had never seen him in costumes like those that appear in the photo on his yearbook page. However, they were at a loss to explain how a mix-up might have occurred that would result in the racist image being placed on his page in error, because students were responsible for submitting their own photos.
Tobin Naidorf, who also graduated in 1984 and is now a gastroenterologist in Alexandria, Virginia, said he did not recall the exact procedure for submitting photos to the yearbook staff. However, he said he was the only person who could have submitted the family photos that appeared on his own page.
Walter Broadnax, Jr.’s page in the Eastern Virginia yearbook included a photo of his deceased grandmother beneath the heading “These are the people who have helped keep the dream alive.”
“Pictures as close as that, I would have had to have chosen those. I can’t speak for Ralph, though,” said Broadnax, whose entry also included a favorite Langston Hughes poem. He doesn’t remember how the yearbook was created or even seeing it once it was published.
Pamela Kopelove, who is credited in the yearbook as its editor, did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
Northam was defying an avalanche of calls to step down from the office he’d assumed not 13 months ago. On Friday afternoon, the Republican Party of Virginia issued an early call for Northam’s resignation, followed by national Democrats, including a host of 2020 contenders. Every group allied with the governor, from Planned Parenthood to the state Democratic party and Democratic leadership in the General Assembly urged Northam to leave office. A crucial group, the legislative Black Caucus, joined the chorus calling for his resignation after a tense meeting Friday night with Northam.
Even home-state champions who regarded him as a dear friend – including immediate predecessor and patron Terry McAuliffe, himself a potential Democratic presidential candidate – said he had to go.
By 9 a.m. friends who hoped he could weather the crisis were wondering if he could survive and avoid becoming the first Virginia governor to resign since the Civil War.
More than a dozen protesters braved the frigid air to protest outside the governor’s mansion, holding signs such as “Blackface, no place” and “Step down and do Virginia a favor.” They chanted “Resign now!”
“There’s no question the tide turned,” said one ally, who had been briefed by the governor’s senior staff and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the private discussions.
Northam and his inner circle had been preparing to fight as news of the photograph broke Friday afternoon – he issued a written apology, then a video mea culpa. They planned a “reconciliation tour,” taking him across the commonwealth to say he was sorry in person, his ally said.
“Then everything changed between 6 and 9 p.m.,” the ally said, as national Democrats unleashed a torrent of calls for his resignation.
On Friday, Northam, 59, released a statement and a video in which he admitted to appearing in the photo, although he did not say which costume he wore.
“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 said. “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. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.”
As cable television devoted hours to the controversy and social media lit up with #ResignRalph hashtags and the drumbeat continued. Calls to resign also came from Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro.
“Black face in any manner is always racist and never okay,” tweeted Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP. “No matter the party affiliation, we can not stand for such behavior, which is why the @NAACP is calling for the resignation of Virginia Governor @RalphNortham.”
The photo reverberated across the country and shook Virginians, who have struggled with a long and difficult legacy around race.
“Virginia’s history is unfortunately replete with the scars and unhealed wounds caused by racism, bigotry and discrimination,” said Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat who plans to run for governor in 2021. “It is imperative that Governor Northam hears and truly listens to those who are hurt by this image as he considers what comes next.”
Herring’s remarks, which stopped short of calling for Northam’s resignation, closely echoed sentiments expressed by the state’s U.S. senators, Kaine and Warner, both Democrats.
Members of the state legislature’s Black Caucus spoke of how they felt profoundly let down by Northam, who had worked alongside them on key legislation. “We feel complete betrayal,” the caucus said in a statement. “The legacy of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow has been an albatross around the necks of African Americans for over 400 years. These pictures rip off the scabs of an excruciatingly painful history and are a piercing reminder of this nation’s sins. Those who would excuse the pictures are just as culpable.”
The caucus was also grappling with revelations in another yearbook, from Northam’s time at Virginia Military Institute. That book listed one of his nicknames as “Coonman,” which some members interpreted as a racial slur.
A Northam spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the nickname’s meaning.
Hours after his apology, the governor released a video that repeated his contrition but said he intended to serve out the remaining three years of his term.
If Northam were to resign, he would be succeeded by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would serve the remaining years in Northam’s term and then be eligible to run for a full four-year term.
Fairfax would hold the highest office in a state where his ancestors were once enslaved. An Ivy-educated lawyer, Fairfax carried a copy of the manumission papers of one of his ancestors in his suit pocket when he was sworn in as lieutenant governor.
The image in the yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School was on a page with other photos of Northam and personal information about the future governor. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, graduated from the medical school in Norfolk in 1984 after earning an undergraduate degree from VMI.
The yearbook page is labeled “Ralph Shearer Northam” and has photos of him in a jacket and tie, casual clothes and alongside his restored Corvette.
Another photo shows two people, one in plaid pants, bow tie and blackface and the other in a Klan robe. Both appear to be holding beer cans. The person in blackface is smiling. Beneath the photo, Northam lists his alma mater and his interest in pediatrics and offers a quote: “There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.”
Jack Wilson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said Northam should step down. “Racism has no place in Virginia,” Wilson said in a statement. “These pictures are wholly inappropriate. If Governor Northam appeared in blackface or dressed in a KKK robe, he should resign immediately.”
Vivian Paige, a longtime political activist in Norfolk who has known Northam since he first ran for office, said she was distraught over the news and felt Northam should step down.
“I’m disappointed and I believe that he can’t lead the party anymore,” said Paige, who is African-American. “Ralph and I are a year apart in age. It really cuts to the bone to me that someone would do that at our age. Our generation – the tail end of the baby boom – we grew up in an integrated society. How could you not know that was wrong?”
Bob Holsworth, a veteran analyst of Virginia politics, the photo could change state politics. “He would have never received the Democratic nomination if this photo had been exposed early enough in the campaign against Tom Perriello,” he said, “While it was a long time ago, we still have to remember it was 1985. Not 1955 or 1935. Plus it was a medical school yearbook. Someone going out and ministering to people of all races and creeds.”
“It certainly damages his perception,” Holsworth said. “The question is: What does it say about his capacity to remain in office?”
Several Democratic members of Virginia’s congressional delegation also called for Northam to resign, including Reps. Abigail Spanberger, Elaine Luria and A. Donald McEachin, who is African American and served with Northam in the state Senate.
The yearbook image was first posted Friday by the website Big League Politics, a conservative outlet founded by Patrick Howley, a former writer for the Daily Caller and Breitbart.
The Washington Post independently confirmed the authenticity of the yearbook by viewing it in the medical school library in Norfolk.
The revelation comes after a wild week for Northam, who was accused by Republicans of advocating infanticide after he made comments defending a bill that would have lifted restrictions on late-term abortions. It was more surprising because Northam has billed himself as the political antidote to Donald Trump – an aw-shucks leader with a boring speaking style and a reputation for honesty. He gained the trust of Republicans, who worked with him last year to pass Medicaid expansion in the state after four years of resisting it under the previous governor, McAuliffe.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights; Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment Jr., R-James City; and other Republican leaders released a statement Friday that called the yearbook image “a deeply disturbing and offensive photograph.”
In his statement, Northam said he recognized “that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor.”
A Northam ally, Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, initially defended the governor on Friday, saying that voters needed to weigh Northam’s lifetime of public service.
But by Saturday afternoon, Saslaw, too, had joined the fray.
“Ralph Northam is a personal friend and has been a colleague of mine for years,” Saslaw said. “Regardless of that friendship, however, he must resign. What we saw yesterday opened wounds that are not going to heal quickly. The only way to begin that healing process is if he tenders his resignation immediately.”
Joan Naidorf, whose husband’s yearbook page is opposite Northam’s in the yearbook, said she was surprised the photos are only now coming out, given Northam’s stature in Virginia politics.
“We’ve often wondered over the last 10 years or so why someone didn’t dig this up sooner,” said Naidorf, a nonpracticing emergency room physician who lives in Alexandria.
She said when she first saw the photo, shortly after the yearbook was published, “I thought: ‘That’s awful.’ I assumed it was something at a drunken frat party.”
She said she didn’t know when or where the photos were taken. Her husband, Tobin, wasn’t available Friday. He met Northam a few times when they worked medical rotations together but weren’t friends, Joan Naidorf said.
Eastern Virginia Medical School allowed students to pick their own photos for their yearbook page, Naidorf said. Her husband chose their engagement photo and other personal pictures. Another student chose a picture of men in blackface and dressed as women in what appears to be a variety-show routine.
Northam has built his 12-year political career on a clean-cut image as a soft-spoken doctor and Army veteran who headed the Honor Council at VMI, a demanding job in which he passed judgment on fellow students accused of lying or violating the school’s honor code.
First elected to the state Senate from Norfolk in 2007, Northam has had a charmed political career. He was courted by Republicans because of his conservative leanings, and was identified early by Kaine, who was then governor, as gubernatorial material because of his experience in both health care and the military. Northam served in the Army for eight years after medical school and treated soldiers wounded in the Persian Gulf War.
After serving as McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor, Northam ran for governor in 2017. During the campaign, he paid special attention to black churches, often attending two or three on Sundays. His home pastor is African-American. After the racial violence in Charlottesville that summer, Northam was among the quickest Virginia political figures to react, making an emotional plea that all Confederate monuments should come down.
He later walked that back and now says it should be up to localities, but he said recently that his personal belief is that such statues are harmful.
Northam grew up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the fishing village of Onancock. His father was a judge and his mother a schoolteacher. Northam and his brother attended a desegregated public high school, where Northam played basketball and baseball.
The origins of blackface date to minstrel shows in the 19th century, when white actors covered themselves in black greasepaint to portray African-Americans in a cartoonish, dehumanizing way. The minstrel shows put forth racist notions of African-Americans as primitive, childish and inferior.
Last week, Michael Ertel, Florida’s secretary of state, resigned after the emergence of photos from 2005 of him in blackface, apparently mimicking victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Former Fox News and NBC journalist Megyn Kelly stirred controversy in October for defending blackface in Halloween costumes.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Laura Vozzella, Gregory S. Schneider Virginia Gov.