Northam denies prior knowledge of racist photo, rejects calls to resign

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) denied Saturday he had any prior knowledge of a racist picture that appeared on his medical school yearbook page and rejected bipartisan calls for his resignation. 

“I am not and will not excuse the content of the photo. It was offensive, racist and despicable. When my staff showed me the photo in question yesterday, I was seeing it for the first time. I did not purchase the [Eastern Virginia Medical School] yearbook and I was unaware of what was on my page,” Northam said at a press conference.

ADVERTISEMENT

“When I was confronted with the images yesterday, I was appalled that they appeared on my page, but I believed then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo.” 

The scandal erupted Friday after The Virginian-Pilot released a photo from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook showing a man wearing blackface and another dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

Northam apologized for the picture Friday and appeared to acknowledge he was one of the two people seen.

“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,” Northam said in a statement.

“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.”

The photo’s release sparked a cavalcade of bipartisan calls for Northam’s resignation, including from the Virginia Democratic Party, the vice chair of the Democratic Governors Association, several prominent members of Congress and multiple 2020 presidential candidates.

During the 40-minute press conference Northam calmly rejected the pleas for him to leave office, suggesting doing so would be the easy way out.

“If I were to listen to the voices calling on me to resign my office today, I could spare myself from the difficult path that lies ahead. I can avoid an honest conversation about harmful actions from my past. I cannot in good conscious choose the path that would be easier for me in an attempt to duck my responsibility to reconcile,” he said Saturday.

“I took an oath to uphold this office and serve the people of this commonwealth to the best of my ability. As long as I believe I can effectively fill that task, I intend to continue doing the business of Virginia.”

The Virginia governor attempted to explain the discrepancy between Saturday’s denial that he appeared in the picture and Friday’s apology seeming to admit he was one of the two men, saying he came to the new conclusion after reflection with family and former classmates.

“I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe. The photo appears with others I submitted in a page with my name on it. Even in my own statement yesterday I conceded that based on the evidence presented to me at the time, the most likely explanation that it was indeed me in the photo,” he said.

“In the hours since I made my statement yesterday, I reflected with my family and classmates and affirmed my conclusion that I am not the person in that photo.”

Despite rejecting any knowledge of the picture prior to Friday's article in The Pilot, Northam still accepted responsibility for the harm the photograph caused Virginians.

“I stand by my statement of apology to the many Virginians who were hurt by seeing this content on a yearbook page that belongs to me. It is disgusting, it is offensive, it is racist, and it was my responsibility to recognize it and prevent it from being published in the first place,” he said.

While denying he appeared in the photograph in question, the governor admitted past mistakes he said were racially insensitive, including darkening his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance competition.

Northam also addressed the nickname “coonman,” which appeared below his image in the yearbook, saying it was bestowed upon him by two older students whose “motives or intent” he did not know.

He sought to lay some of the blame on the incidents on “the place and time that I grew up,” suggesting that such practices were “commonplace” in 1984. But former Gov. Douglas Wilder (D-Va.) would be elected lieutenant governor just two years later, becoming the first black statewide elected official in Virginia’s history.

Recognizing he may have ground to make up with Virginians, the governor ended his statement by looking forward and saying he was ready to regain the trust of his constituents.

“I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the many people who have been hurt by this episode and mistakes that I have made in the past. I am ready to earn your forgiveness and I am ready to begin today,” he concluded.

Northam’s press conference did not appear to help make gains in his quest to dig himself out of the mountain of resignation calls from politicians, advocacy groups, including the NAACP, and others.

Shortly after the press conference concluded, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE released a statement doubling down on calls for Northam to leave office.

“His past actions are completely antithetical to everything the Democratic Party stands for. 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,” Perez said, noting that he had spoken to the governor this morning.

“It’s time for Ralph Northam to step aside and let Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax serve Virginians as their next governor.”

But Fairfax did not appear to have any desire, at least publicly, to supplant Northam, saying in a statement he was “glad” the governor apologized.

“The Governor needed to apologize, and I am glad that he did so. He also reached out to me personally to express his sincere regrets and to apologize. I have worked closely with Ralph Northam over many years. He has been a friend to me and has treated my family and me with hospitality and respect,” he said in a statement after the press conference.

“At this critical and defining moment in the history of Virginia and this nation, we need leaders with the ability to unite and help us rise to the better angels of our nature. I remain committed to serving and helping to heal the Commonwealth moving forward. Now more than ever, we must make decisions in the best interests of the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Two Virginia Democratic congressman, who had previously, refrained from calling for Northam’s ouster, also released statements saying after the press conference saying the governor should step aside.

“Virginia has a painful past where racism was too often not called out for its evil. The only way to overcome that history is to speak and act with absolute moral clarity. It is for that reason the Governor must step aside and allow the process of healing to begin under the leadership of Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax,” Reps. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyFour heated moments from House hearing on conditions at border facilities Ex-ICE chief blasts House Democrat after tense hearing: 'He ran out of there like a little girl' Live coverage: House Oversight examines Trump family separation policy MORE (D-Va.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in a joint statement.

Connolly had initially said Friday evening that Northam “must search his heart to determine whether he can or should continue in office.”

The state's Democratic Senators Tim. Kaine and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand On The Money: Fed chief warns of 'unthinkable' harm if debt ceiling breached | Powell basks in bipartisan praise amid Trump attacks | Federal deficit jumps to 7 billion Fed chief basks in bipartisan praise as lawmakers dismiss Trump attacks MORE, both former governors themselves, released a statement with Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottA minimum wage is exactly what our economy needs This week: House Democrats voting to hold Barr, Ross in contempt CBO report should spike minimum wage legislation MORE (D-Va.) saying Northam needed to resign.

"After we watched his press conference today, we called Governor Northam to tell him that we no longer believe he can effectively serve as Governor of Virginia and that he must resign," the statement read. "Governor Northam has served the people of the Commonwealth faithfully for many years, but the events of the past 24 hours have inflicted immense pain and irrevocably broken the trust Virginians must have in their leaders. He should step down and allow the Commonwealth to begin healing.”

Former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhy Trump's bigoted tropes won't work in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm MORE also called on Northam to resign on Twitter, saying "This has gone on too long. There is nothing to debate."