Ralph Northam now says racist photo isn’t him, won’t resign
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday that while he has darkened his skin before to imitate a black man, he doesn’t think he is in the photo that appears on his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing someone in blackface and another person in a KKK costume.
Mr. Northam, speaking in Richmond, cast himself as a martyr of his times, saying he won’t resign because that would be the easy way out. Instead, he said, he will stay in office to punish himself and to force “a discussion about these difficult issues.”
He acknowledged his version of events over the photo was unlikely to be accepted, saying he realized it convoluted.
But he insisted he didn’t know of the photo’s existence, never bought the yearbook, and despite initially saying it was him, no longer believes that was so.
“I have made mistakes in my life, but what caused this stir-up yesterday, I am not responsible for. That is not me in that photo,” he said. “That’s not me, that’s not who I am.”
Even as he was speaking, however, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez called for him to step down.
“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,” he said.
The photo is one of four that appear on his page. He said he did submit the other three photos, but says he doesn’t know the origin of the photo showing one person in blackface and another in the white robe and pointed hat of the Ku Klux Klan.
He says he initially wasn’t sure of the photo, and admitted he did at one point darken his skin as part of a Michael Jackson dance contest in San Antonio, around the same time as the yearbook, when he was 25.
But he says he thought about the photo, consulted with classmates, and now doesn’t think he’s in it.
Mr. Northam, 59, blamed his upbringing on Virginia’s Eastern Shore for his transgressions, and said he was “not surprised by [the photo’s] appearance” on his yearbook page.
“In the place and time that I grew up, many actions that we rightly recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace,” he said.
He says that while he now believes darkening his face with shoe polish to look like Michael Jackson was wrong, he does not consider that blackface, and he drew a distinction between that and the photo.
Mr. Northam’s decision to remain in office defies the calls of Democrats and Republicans at all levels, from the party’s potential 2020 presidential candidates to his own troops in Virginia’s legislature.
The Democratic caucuses in both the Senate and House of the General Assembly have told him to step aside, as has Virginia Democratic Party Chair Susan Sweck.
Part of the eagerness of Democrats may be their fear of electoral blowback all 140 assembly seats are up for re-election in November, and having a tainted governor leading them into the campaign could be difficult.
By contrast, they are clearly eager to have Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax lead them. Mr. Fairfax is younger, dynamic and black.
But Mr. Northam insisted Saturday that Mr. Fairfax backs his decision not to resign.
No Virginia governor has left office early since the Civil War, which would make Mr. Northam’s departure, should it come to that, uncharted territory.
Mr. Northam said he believes he’s the right person to lead the state through a conversation on race.
“We still have a lot of issues to work on as we move forward,” he said. “I really think this is probably a good opportunity to talk about that.”