RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he does not believe he is either person in the racist photo that appeared in his 1984 yearbook but that he did once darken his face to resemble Michael Jackson during a dance contest in 1984.
In a remarkable, hour-long news conference at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, Northam defended himself from the cacophony of calls for his resignation but acknowledged that he had made mistakes on race in his past, like when he darkened his face for the dance contest.
“I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo,” Northam said, denying that he had ever worn a KKK robe and hood or been drunk enough to forget a moment like this. “This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam.”
The racist photograph, which was obtained by CNN, appears in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook and shows one person dressed in blackface and another in the KKK’s signature white hood and robes.
Despite numerous calls for him to resign, Northam said he would try to win over those who want him out.
“I intend to continue doing the business of Virginia,” he said, adding that resigning would be the easier way out.
“I could spare myself from the difficult path that lies ahead. I could avoid an honest conversation about harmful actions from my past,” he said. “I cannot in good conscience chose the path that would be easier for me in an effort to duck my responsibility to reconcile.”
Northam’s support continues to dwindle
His news conference did not immediately win over those who had demanded his ouster, and if the expected outcome was of one that would stop the bleeding, it did not work.
Both of Virginia’s senators — Mark Warner and Tim Kaine — and Rep. Bobby Scott called on Northam to resign following his news conference.
“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. 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,” the three said in a joint statement.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, a group of lawmakers that had met with Northam on Friday, said the governor’s press conference just renewed their belief that he should go.
“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. “Changing his public story today now casts further doubt on his ability to regain that trust.”
Additionally, former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder also called for Northam’s resignation, writing in a tweet: “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.
Earlier in the day, Wilder, who is one of two African-Americans ever elected governor in the US, had supported Northam’s ability to decide to stay, but that changed after the news conference.
Northam, in one of the most bizarre moments in an otherwise extraordinary press conference, vividly recalled the dance contest where he dressed as Jackson, the legendary pop icon.
“I had the shoes, I had a glove, and I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put under my — or on my — cheeks,” he said. “And the reason I used a very little bit is because, I don’t know if anybody’s ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off.”
He added: “I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that.”
Northam told reporters that while he took responsibility for the photo shown in the yearbook, he saw it for the first time when he saw it yesterday. He said he did not purchase the yearbook and was not aware of the photo in question.
Asked about whether he had ever worn a KKK uniform as was seen in the photo, he answered, “I am not the person in that uniform, and I am not the person to the right.”
Northam’s press conference represents a significant backtrack from what the governor said just a day earlier when he apologized for the photo and said that he was in it.
“Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive,” he said Friday.
Changing his story
In conversations with lawmakers Friday night, Northam said he did not know which person he was in the yearbook picture, according to Virginia Del. LaMont Bagby. In calls with other allies and lawmakers, Northam said he wasn’t sure if he was in the photo, and Saturday afternoon claimed that he is confident he is not in the photo and that it was placed on his page in the yearbook in error.
As for his inconsistency, Northam said on Saturday that he was able to sit down last night and take full stock of the photo after talking with friends of his from his medical school days.
“What has happened, I finally had a chance to sit down and look at the photo in detail. It is definitely not me,” he said in response to questions.
His medical school yearbook is not the only yearbook in question, either. After the medical school photo was revealed, photos of Northam’s yearbook from Virginia Military Institute were made public and showed that one of his nicknames in college was “Coonman,” a racially insensitive moniker.
Northam sought to explain the nickname by saying there were only two people he knew who ever called him that, but that his primary nickname was “Goose.” He said he did not know why the two people called him “Coonman.”
Northam’s future loomed over the press conference, as Democrats across the country — and, most notably, in Virginia — demanded he step down and Justin Fairfax, Northam’s 39-year-old African-American lieutenant governor, take his place.
“He has been very supportive, and he will continue to be supportive,” he said. “He is a wonderful person.”
Northam said he had talked to him at least three times since the controversy began.
After Northam finished speaking, Fairfax issued a direct statement that said he “cannot condone the actions from his past that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping and intimidation.”
Fairfax, notably, did not call on the governor to resign.
Fairfax, a former prosecutor who has been central in Virginia’s public conversation about racism, was sworn in as lieutenant governor in 2018 with the manumission — a document proving the release from slavery — of his ancestor in his front pocket.
The news conference is the latest proof that Northam is digging in to save his job.
Earlier on Saturday, Northam told a top Virginia Democrat he was in touch with some of his former Eastern Virginia Medical School colleagues since issuing the apology. Those former classmates said they believed many of the pictures in the yearbook were mixed up.
Northam did not recall the picture being taken, he told the source, and said he was not involved in the production of the yearbook.
The New York Times first reported Northam was making calls.
Northam was also asked to leave by former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe — who was governor when Northam was lieutenant governor. McAuliffe and Northam had a “long talk” before the former governor’s Friday statement went out, according to a source with knowledge of the call, and McAuliffe informed Northam that he was going to publicly ask for his ouster.
McAuliffe and Northam have not talked on Saturday, a source told CNN.
In his statement Friday, Northam said the “decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”
“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,” he said.
Friday’s apology was far from enough for Virginia Democrats and a host of protestors who gathered outside Northam’s executive mansion on a chilly Saturday morning to demand his ouster.
Chanting for him to resign, the protestors excoriated Northam for the photo.
“We are here today because the history of Jim Crow is still alive and living in the Governor Mansion,” said community activist Art Burton, who also touched upon Richmond’s racist roots as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Burton and others said bluntly that Northam’s apology was far from enough.
Northam, a former pediatric neurosurgeon and Army doctor, won the governorship in 2017.