Northam Refuses To Resign, Denies Racist Photos Are Of Him

Despite overwhelming calls for his resignation, Ralph Northam is refusing to step down as Governor of Virginia.

Despite mounting calls to step aside after revelations of racist photos in his medical school yearbook, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is refusing to step aside:

RICHMOND, Va. — Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, facing pressure from his own party to resign, said Saturday he would not quit and denied that he had appeared in Ku Klux Klan robes or in blackface in images from his medical school yearbook that have upended his governorship.

“It was definitely not me,” Mr. Northam, a Democrat, told reporters at a news conference in the governor’s mansion. “I can tell by looking at it.”

Pressed on why he initially apologized, Mr. Northam said he had wanted to “take credit for recognizing that this was a horrific photo that was on my page with my name on it.”

The governor called the images, which first surfaced Friday afternoon, “offensive, racist and despicable.” But he said that “I cannot in good conscience choose the path that would be easier for me to duck the responsibility to reconcile.”

But he may have made his effort to remain in office more difficult by revealing that he had darkened his face with shoe polish for a Michael Jackson costume in a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was a young Army officer.

“I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that,” he said.

Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus did not wait for the news conference to end before issuing a statement reaffirming its call for the governor to quit. Noting that Mr. Northam had initially said Friday that he was in the photograph, the group of legislators, who are all Democrats, said, “The damage that has been done by these revelations is irreparable.”

Others soon followed with similar reactions. The Virginia Democratic Party said it stood by its call earlier Saturday for Mr. Northam to resign. And the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, also urged the governor to step aside.

Mr. Northam, who was elected in 2017, asked Virginians for forgiveness and said he understood not all of the state’s citizens would believe him.

The governor’s refusal to resign plunged Virginia into political turmoil and created a crisis for national Democrats, who have assailed President Trump for his demagogy on racial issues and will not abide a prominent party member who is associated with emblems of bigotry.

Democrats in the Trump era have adopted a sort of zero-tolerance approach in their ranks toward misconduct involving race and gender. With Republicans eager to level accusations of hypocrisy, Democratic leaders in Washington have sought to aggressively police the sort of misdeeds they have linked to Mr. Trump. They have pushed out lawmakers such as former Senator Al Franken of Minnesota and former Representative Ruben Kihuen of Nevada, both of whom were accused of sexual harassment.

And with the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race getting underway, the pressure on Mr. Northam has been even more intense: The party’s White House hopefuls were some of the first officials to call on him to resign Friday night, beginning a cascade of demands that extended through Saturday morning when other potential Democratic candidates, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, urged the governor to step down.

(…)

At his news conference on Saturday, Mr. Northam said that he had had a chance to sit down on Friday night and look at the photo closely. He said he had also consulted with his family and friends, including a classmate who said there were photo mix-ups on other pages in the yearbook. He said Saturday that he had not bought the yearbook and had never seen it.

More from The Washington Post:

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) 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 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.

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, 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 G. 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.”

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, 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 G. 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.”

To call Northam’s press conference a public relations disaster is to put it nicely. Given the statements he gave last night, both in writing and on video several hours later, the idea that he now contends that he is not either of the persons in the photograph in question and that he has no idea how the photograph ended up on his page is quite simply implausible. Northam also contends that he had never seen his yearbook page, which was published thirty-five years ago, before yesterday and that he was unaware that this photo appears on the same page as photographs of himself that he admits he submitted to be included on the page.

Even more bizarrely, Northam stated near the top of the press conference that he is confident that he is not one of the two people in the photograph because he has a clear memory of another incident where he did “darken his skin.” This, apparently, was a dance contest in San Antonio, Texas in which he appeared as Michael Jackson and admits that he applied shoe polish to his face to make himself look like Jackson. As I said on Twitter at the time, this is like defending oneself on a charge of having had an affair with your next-door neighbor’s wife by saying it couldn’t be true because you have a distinct memory of having an affair with the wife of your neighbor across the street. This part of Northam’s story was made even more absurd when he claimed that he didn’t fully realize that darkening his skin as part of the Michael Jackson impersonation would be considered offensive until he had a conversation with a young campaign staffer during his run for Governor in 2017. To put it bluntly, if Northam thought this press conference was going to stop the bleeding, he was clearly mistaken. Indeed, before he had even walked away from the microphone Tom Perez, the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, joined in the call for him to resign.

As Aaron Blake put it in The Washington Post, Northam is done whether he knows it or not:

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) may not know it yet, but in all likelihood he is done.

On Friday, images emerged of Northam’s medical school yearbook page, on which there is a photo of a man in blackface next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam initially admitted he was in the “racist and offensive” photo, then denied it. Later, CBS News got a hold of Northam’s Virginia Military Institute yearbook, which listed his nickname as “Coonman.”

Rarely have calls for the resignation of a high-ranking public official been so swift. Several presidential candidates — including the two African-American senators running — led the way. The incoming head of the Democratic Governors Association went on TV to urge Northam to step aside. The NAACP joined in the calls, as did big-name Democrats in Northam’s home state, including African-American Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, two freshman congresswomen and his predecessor as governor, Terry McAuliffe.

Not everyone is quite there yet, but about the only people pleading for more time are Northam’s closest allies and friends, including state Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D) and state Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R). The fact that they even see this as a battle worth fighting is notable. Anyone who stands up for Northam now has to worry how history might come to judge that decision.

They also have to worry about what might be to come. We don’t yet know the details of the provenance of the photo or Northam’s “Coonman” nickname, but the fact that these kinds of things appeared in both his undergraduate and medical school yearbooks makes you wonder what else is out there. The likelihood that these were completely isolated incidents is basically nil. Northam will have lots of explaining to do, and he’ll now have that chapter of his life probed endlessly.

(…)

Democrats clearly have no desire to save a Democratic governor who is term-limited and who could only pose future headaches if he tries to keep his job. As The Post’s Philip Bump writes, he may fight this and it may be difficult to impeach him if the state legislature goes down that road. But Northam is hardly the fire-breather that seems likely to fight this, and now that he’s largely forfeited the support of his own party, the remainder of his time as governor would likely be a lost cause anyway.

Northam may fight this, but it will likely be in vain. Democrats want the moral high ground on issues of race, especially ahead of President Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, and a Gov. Northam remaining in office would be a huge liability. There is too much incentive to get him out — and soon.

Since they cannot stand for re-election or serve consecutive terms, Governors in Virginia tend to become lame ducks very early in their term as it is. In Northam’s case, it’s even worse. He has lost the support of basically his entire political party and every Democrat in the legislature in Richmond except, perhaps, for a handful of personal friends who may or may not stand behind him at this point. He will not be able to effectively govern the Commonwealth no longer exists. Additionally, his party is headed into midterm elections in which it hopes to gain seats in the House of Delegates and the State Senate. His continued presence in Richmond makes all of that far more difficult. His only option is to resign, the only question left is when he will realize that.

Update: Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, along with Congressman Bobby Scott are now calling on Northam to resign:

These are the three most senior Democrats in the Commonwealth. There is now basically nobody outside of Northam’s dwindling number of personal friends in the legislature who isn’t calling on Northam to resign.

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    So…he never saw his yearbook before yesterday, isn’t the person in blackface and isn’t the person in KKK garb, and has no idea how the photo got on his page.

    Do I have that right?

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  2. Hal_10000 says:

    That press conference was just bizarre. There are two possibilities here: Northam was the victim of a yearbook prank and didn’t realize it for thirty years; Northam is a cynical lying sack of garbage. There’s no in-between anymore. The blackface was bad enough. If he’s lying about it … way worse.

  3. James Pearce says:

    @Hal_10000:

    There are two possibilities here: Northam was the victim of a yearbook prank and didn’t realize it for thirty years; Northam is a cynical lying sack of garbage.

    If only there was some way to find out the truth…

    (It was a bizarre press conference, though.)

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  4. Modulo Myself says:

    There’s a simple explanation. He thought by tell the truth he could survive. When that didn’t work, he tried for a Hail Mary.

  5. CSK says:

    @Hal_10000:

    If it was a prank on the part of the yearbook editors, how hard would it be to track down some of the yearbook staff, their faculty advisor(s), or someone in the administration who could verify this? How difficult would it be to find someone who could just confirm that students chose and submitted their own photos?

  6. Teve says:

    @Modulo Myself: that’s a funny coincidence, I was talking to my friend Sarah earlier and I tried to describe what the fuck this idiot did today, and I described it as a Hail Mary.

  7. Teve says:

    my friend Sarah is from West Virginia, and she explained to me today that in her experience, going from West Virginia to Virginia was entering a zone of extreme racism, from a zone of just mild racism. I didn’t know that, I thought for some reason that West Virginia was much worse.

  8. Teve says:

    She said the growing up in West Virginia, and occasionally going to Virginia, she was confused by how in Virginia people referred to the black wait staff at restaurants as boy all the time. This was in the mid-90s.

  9. Eric Florack says:

    Gee,
    I seem to recall a time just a few months ago, when the left was trying to ruin a man’s life over a yearbook. Even had show hearings in the Senate on the matter.

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  10. MarkedMan says:

    This isn’t really meant to be a comment on how Northam is handling this, but rather a caution when someone assumes things about what can be known about thirty five years after the fact. As it happens, I graduated from college 36 years ago this year. I’m pretty sure I never saw my yearbook picture and may not have even posed for one. I certainly never bought a yearbook. And I certainly wouldn’t trust the memory of any yearbook editor as to how specific photographs were selected. I’m curious – for those people within ten years or so of my age, how many have any recollection about their college yearbook photo?

    As for the Michael Jackson thing, all I can say is that although today the very idea of coloring your skin for a halloween costume is tantamount to screaming the N word while waving the Confederate flag, it wasn’t seen that way at the time. It would have more likely been seen as simply spending way too much time on a costume.

    With that said, the idea that he was much more racist then than now doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and it was as racist as you could possibly imagine. And yet even South Siders of my era considered Virginia and the other Confederate states as repulsively racist.

  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: My brother and sister-in-law have lived in Williamsburg, VA for about 40 years. I visited them for about a week in the mid-70s. It was amazing to me. It was the first time that I had ever seen a road grading crew consisting of 30 or so black men with shovels and no grader, or a paving crew that was repairing a tarmac road with no steamroller. It was like “why buy machines to do this stuff when we have [insert epithet here] to do it.”

    And Williamsburg was pretty cosmopolitan even then. I can’t imagine what it was like in areas where tourism isn’t a big piece of the whole economic mix.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Eric Florack: Just for my curiosity, which comments here were you reading that were in the “give this guy another chance/obviously he’s innocent” vein?

    (or have they all been deleted by the hosts?)

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  13. Tyrell says:

    There has been too quick a rush to judgment and “throw him out”. Suppose these are his pictures (and notice that no one is making any comments about the third picture on that page), we then ask is this sort of behavior occurring more than once, or is it a one time event way back when he was in school ?
    Some yearbook teams sometimes throw all kinds of crazy stuff in.
    People need to look below the surface to really see what is really going on here; and it is not about this governor being a racist.
    These people who are so quick to jump on him: how about their past?
    And think about this: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” John 8:7 (KJV)

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  14. Kari Q says:

    I would have accepted the “It wasn’t me and I never saw that before and I’m outraged” defense if he hadn’t immediately apologized yesterday. If you’ve apologized, you can’t very well insist you never did it. It sounds a lot like you’re saying “Oh, that photo? No, I’m not in that one. I thought you’d found the one with the me in blackface holding a watermelon and making fried chicken.”

  15. grumpy realist says:

    I could–just barely–understand the blackface, but the KKK costume? and this “oooh, look, gee I have NO IDEA how this picture ended up on my yearbook page!”

    He’s toast.

  16. Scott F. says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Whenever you might want to contrast how the different Parties ask leaders to take personal responsibility for their past acts, I really hope you recall how the Democrats called for a man’s resignation over a yearbook, while the Republicans suborned perjury before Congress.

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  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    …this is like defending oneself on a charge of having had an affair with your next-door neighbor’s wife by saying it couldn’t be true because you have a distinct memory of having an affair with the wife of your neighbor across the street.

    Well played, Doug! That was clever and if I did Twitter I would definitely have retweeted it.

  18. gVOR8 says:

    @CSK:

    So…he never saw his yearbook before yesterday, isn’t the person in blackface and isn’t the person in KKK garb, and has no idea how the photo got on his page.
    Do I have that right?

    Yup. And – he can tell by looking it’s not him in the hood?

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Teve: I briefly lived in Arlington TX in the early 70s. Got a chuckle out of the menu at a fairly nice restaurant I went to occasionally. Never saw any evidence of racism, but at the bottom of the menu there was a footer,
    Southern Hospitality Inc.
    We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.

  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Tyrell:

    These people who are so quick to jump on him: how about their past?

    There’s some truth there. We can only condemn what we know, so we’re giving the advantage to successful hypocrites and punishing the unsuccessful hypocrites (those who got caught) . The successful hypocrites join the mob attacking the dude who got caught.

    We have no clear codification, no consistency either in terms of defining the ‘crime’ or in choosing punishment. I’m sitting here watching Joy Reid talk about Northam while she had her own history with anti-gay slurs, which she lied about, and yet she now sits in judgment. Some survive, some don’t. Some are treated fairly, others are destroyed over nothing. It’s not fair or just.

    But there is another consideration: maybe this is what it takes to get white males in particular to recognize at an emotional level the insecurity of life as a POC or a woman. What ‘we’ are getting now is what ‘they’ have been getting for centuries.

    It’s like the opioid ‘epidemic.’ It’s an epidemic requiring treatment because opioids are used by white people; when it was crack the solution was to build prisons. Treatment for white junkies, prison for black junkies. Or like Republicans who sht on gay people until, oops, one of their kids turns out to be gay. The solution should be more empathy, and that empathy should not have required this big demonstration, people should have just not been asholes. But conservatives are devoid of imagination or empathy and only learn at the wrong end of a baseball bat.

    Maybe next time consider that as you treat others, you may yourself be treated. Or as another writer put it, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

  21. Eric Florack says:

    So double standards being applied here are nothing short of astounding.

    we’ve all seen the picture of Bill and Hillary Clinton in blackface.

    this is what happens when you hold Democrat to their own standards.

    Let the dancing continue

  22. Monala says: