Gov. Northam says that wasn’t him in racist photo

The image shows Gov. Ralph Northam's page in his 1984 EVMS school yearbook. It's unclear who the people in the picture are, but the rest of the page is filled with pictures of Northam and lists his undergraduate alma mater and other information about him. (Courtesy of Republican Party of Virginia)
The image shows Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 EVMS school yearbook. It’s unclear who the people in the picture are, but the rest of the page is filled with pictures of Northam and lists his undergraduate alma mater and other information about him.
(Courtesy of Republican Party of Virginia)

Gov. 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 in his 1984 medical school yearbook at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, which Northam attended.

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.

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 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 president of Eastern Virginia Medical School says a racist photo that appears in the 1984 student yearbook is “shockingly abhorrent.”

In a statement on the school’s website , President Richard Homan said the photo of one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood is “absolutely antithetical” to the school’s principles, morals and values.

Homan also apologized for “past transgressions of your trust.” He said he’ll convene a meeting of leadership and others to address the issue.

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring released the following statement Saturday afternoon:
“It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down. I have spoken with Lieutenant Governor Fairfax and assured him that, should he ascend to the governorship, he will have my complete support and commitment to ensuring his success and the success of our Commonwealth.”

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’s 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.

Associated Press writer Ben Finley contributed to this report.

Southside Daily contributed to this report.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.