Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Saturday resisted calls to immediately resign from office—claiming he does not appear in a racist yearbook photo but admitting he had worn blackface in his past.
“I believed then and I believed now I was not the people in the photo,” the Democrat said, standing next to his wife in the governor’s mansion in Richmond.
“I recognize many people will find this difficult to believe,” he said, acknowledging that he said it was him in the photo when he issued an apology after it surfaced on Friday.
The photo depicted two men, one in blackface and one wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, on Northam’s page in the East Virginia Medical College 1984 yearbook.
“Yesterday evening was the first time I saw this photo. It was shocking, it was horrific,” he said.
Northam repeatedly called the photo racist and offensive and said it should have been his responsibility to make sure it didn’t appear on the yearbook page with his name.
But, he added, “I had nothing to do with the preparation of the yearbook nor did I buy one.”
Asked directly about calls for him to step down, Northam said, “I plan to continue to lead.”
While the 59-year-old governor denied a connection to the picture that sparked the outrage, he did reveal he had darkened his face in 1984 for a Michael Jackson costume during an event in San Antonio, Texas, which he said was wrong.
Northam then said he would have remembered taking the medical-school photo in question because of his “vivid” memory of wearing blackface a different time that same year.
He also acknowledged his nickname at the Virginia Military Institute before medical school was “Coonman,” a racial slur for black people. Northam said he didn’t know the intent of the people who gave it to him, though he regretted accepting it.
Northam’s performance did nothing to buoy his sinking support.
Douglas Wilder, the first African-American governor of Virginia, said Saturday night enough was enough. “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.”
Northam was sharply criticized by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax who said the photo suggested “comfort” with white supremacy. Virginia’s U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, said they spoke to Northam on the phone after the press conference and asked him to resign.
The governor is holding out against a firestorm that began Friday afternoon when the racist photo was initially circulated by a far-right website. Hours later, Northam apologized for the “deeply racist and offensive” photo. “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,” he said
Late Friday night, he apologized again and said he intended to serve out the remaining three years of his term.
By the next morning, however, he had lost almost all support in his party.
The state Democratic Party called for his resignation and replacement by Fairfax, who would be the second African-American to ever hold the post. Democratic cacuses in both chambers of the legislature called for him to step down, as well as ex-Gov. Terry McAullife, under whom Northam previously served as lieutenant governor.
Mark Levinie, a Democrat in the House of Delegates, told The Daily Beast what’s happened was previously unimangible to him.
“Two days ago, I never would have believed that the Ralph Northam who I know would ever have been in a racist photo,” he said Saturday, a day after calling on the governor to resign.
Democrats across the country also joined in calling for his ouster, including presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Julian Castro. They were all joined by the NAACP and liberal groups including the largest Democratic super PAC.
Northam, 59, reportedly told Democrats on Saturday morning he did not remember being in the 1984 photo—trying to walk back his public acknowledgment Friday that he was in the photo. Northam even called medical school alumni seeking more information about the photo, the New York Times reported.
He was elected in 2017 after beating Republican Ed Gillespie in a bruising campaign in which Gillespie was blasted for racially charged ads and Northam courted black voters. The election months after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville and one allegedly killed an anti-racist protestor.
— With reporting from Asawin Suebsaeng in Washington, D.C.