Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam continues to face criticism from prominent politicians, civil rights organizations and voters in his state and nationwide after a photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page of someone in blackface and another person wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.
Northam apologized Friday for being in the racist photo published on a conservative website. The next day during a more than 40-minute press conference at the governor’s mansion in Richmond, the 59-year-old Democrat backtracked, saying he is “convinced” that he’s neither person in the photo and doesn’t plan on resigning.
“We will continue to lead. We will continue to talk about the issues that are important,” he said. “We’ll also have a conversation about trust and I have been a man of honor. … I ask Virginians to accept my word.”
Northam also revealed Saturday he spread “a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks” more than 30 years ago to dress as Michael Jackson in a dance contest in San Antonio upon graduation from Eastern Virginia Medical School.
Northam, who’s been in office since January 2018, received a flood of calls Friday and Saturday for him to resign, from prominent Virginia Democrat Rep. Bobby Scott to L. Douglas Wilder, first elected Black governor in state and U.S. history.
“I stated, earlier, that Gov. Northam’s continuing in office was his choice to make. It is difficult for anyone who watched the press conference today to conclude that he has any other choice …but to resign,” Wilder said in a Twitter post Saturday, several hours after Northam’s news conference.
Northam did receive rare public support Tuesday from Joseph Lieberman, a former U.S. senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate.
“I think there is a rush to judgment that is unfair to him,” Lieberman said on CNN. “He ought to be judged in the context of his whole life. I pray every day that God is merciful. I know how imperfect I am and I always feel that I’ve got to show the same kind of mercy to other people in judgment until they’re actually proven guilty.”
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a civil rights activist, author and political analyst, said during an appearance Monday on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s “Keepin’ It Real” radio show that he supports Northam remaining in office.
Hutchinson wrote on his blog that Republicans clamoring for Northam’s resignation are actually motivated by his defending the easing of abortion restrictions during a radio interview with WTOP on Jan. 30. The Virginia GOP accused Northam, a pediatric neurologist, of supporting infanticide, the intentional killing of infants.
“When Northam turned turncoat on abortion, this sent a flag high up within the GOP to find any dirt it could to embarrass him and create enough outrage that hopefully could prompt his ouster,” Hutchinson said in his blog. “So, there is no sudden moral outrage over a racist photo of Northam at work here. This is brutal, cynical and dirty politics. This and nothing more are why the GOP outed Northam on race.”
Meanwhile, Northam faces another controversy surrounding his time at the Virginia Military Institute, where he was reportedly known by some as “Coonman,” a nickname containing a racist slur used toward Blacks.
“Our sadness and that so many Virginians can be summed up in one term: trust betrayed,” the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP said in a statement Saturday. “After resigning, we ask Ralph Northam, his successor, legislators, other public officials along with Virginia’s most powerful corporate leaders, among others to work with VSC NAACP leaders in genuine efforts to restore the feelings of trust betrayed by so many African Americans and others.”
University of Virginia President James E. Ryan condemned the “shocking and racist” yearbook photo. The Charlottesville school dealt with racially charged violence during an August 2017 white supremacist rally at which counterprotester Heather Heyer, 32, was struck and killed by a vehicle. The driver, James Fields Jr., was convicted of intentionally striking Heyer and sentenced in December to life in prison.
If Northam decides to resign, then Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, 39, would lead the state and would become the state’s second Black governor. Fairfax also faced criticism when the same conservative website that released a photo of Northam accused Fairfax late Sunday of an alleged sexual assault.
Fairfax is accused of assaulting a woman in a hotel room in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
The lieutenant governor’s staff released a statement denying the assault “in any way, shape or form.”
“This is part of the sad and dark politics that the Lt. Governor has dedicated himself to helping Virginia and the nation rise above,” according to the statement. “The Lt. Governor will take appropriate legal action against those attempting to spread this defamatory and false allegation.”