Leaders demand governor’s resignation
Published 12:40 pm Saturday, February 2, 2019
By Saffeya Ahmed, Georgia Geen and Owen FitzGerald
Capital News Service
Resisting pressure to resign, Gov. Ralph Northam said Saturday that he is not one of the individuals in a racist photo found on his medical school yearbook page, but he revealed he once “darkened” his skin as part of a Michael Jackson costume in a dance contest the same year.
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At an afternoon press conference, Northam said the costume was not blackface — which is when a non-black person uses makeup or another substance to appear black. At the San Antonio event, which occurred in 1984, the same year the yearbook photo was taken, a 25-year-old Northam put shoe polish on his cheeks. He said he used a small amount because the substance is “hard to get off.”
“I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that,” Northam said.
Blackface in the U.S. originated with 19th-century theatrical performances and was used to perpetuate racist stereotypes.
Northam’s defense centers around the San Antonio event. On Saturday, he said that he had no recollection of attending the party where the racist photo was taken but that he remembers “darkening” his skin to look like Jackson. To Northam, his clear recollection of one event and not the other is the sign he wasn’t “the person in that uniform and I am not the person to the right.”
After conversations with family, friends and former classmates, Northam said he came to the conclusion that he was not in the photo. He said he previously identified himself as being in the image because of all of the “hurt” it was causing.
Northam did not have a specific explanation for how the photo appeared on his yearbook page. He said he submitted three other photos but did not recognize the image in question. It’s possible, he said, that the photo belonged to a classmate and was incorrectly placed on his page.
Eastern Virginia Medical School, Northam’s alma mater that produced the yearbook, issued a statement by its president saying the institution shares the “outrage, alarm and sadness voiced by our alumni, the press and many on social media” over the yearbook image.
In Northam’s Virginia Military Institute yearbook, one of his nicknames was listed as “coonman” — “coon” is a racial slur referring to black people. He said two older classmates referred to him as such, but he said that he did not know their motives or intent and that he regrets the fact that the nickname was used in the yearbook.
Since the photo surfaced Friday, Northam has maintained that he will not resign.
“As long as I feel I can lead, I will continue to do that,” Northam said. “If I reach a point where I am not comfortable with that, obviously I will sit back and have that discussion.”
Scores of groups and individuals have called for Northam to step down as governor in response, including Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the NAACP and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. The calls for his resignation still sounded after his denial of the photo.
“It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a statement released more than 24 hours after the photo first surfaced.
Many Virginians aren’t receptive to Northam’s remorse. Saturday morning, a group of about 25 protesters urged Northam to resign. Next to the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, David Williams stood with a sign that read, “Step down and do VA a favor.” He attended the march with his two young adult daughters.
“I’m out here, really, to show my kids that you must protest when anything comes up that’s wrong,” Williams said. “The pictures that we saw was very disturbing and very hurtful, especially to African Americans.”
Francesca Leigh Davis, who attended the protest, said she was “appalled” at Northam’s reaction to the backlash.
“You put black people through this shame, the people who voted for you to stand in this office. I’m insulted that black people are used like pawns in this particular party,” Davis said. “Think of each and every black vote that was cast for you. We trusted you.”
Calls for resignation resound across state
Across the political spectrum, government officials and advocacy groups are calling for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s resignation after media reports of a racist photo on his page in a college yearbook.
The photo, from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook, features two men — one dressed in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe. On Friday, Northam apologized for the photo. On Saturday, he said that it was not him in the picture after all and that he would not resign.
Calls for Northam’s resignation began Friday night and continued throughout Saturday. They came from both sides of the aisle, including Virginia Democrats, House and Senate Republican leaders and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
“When the racist picture first emerged Friday, we were shocked and repulsed. The photo is disturbing and offensive, as unacceptable in 1984 as it is today,” said a statement issued by House Speaker Kirk Cox and other Republicans.
“While we respect the governor’s lifetime of service, his ability to lead and govern is permanently impaired and the interests of the commonwealth necessitate his resignation.”
Democratic leaders agreed.
Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, issued a statement Saturday calling for Northam’s immediate resignation.
“We made the decision to let Gov. Northam do the correct thing and resign this morning — we have gotten word he will not do so this morning. We stand with Democrats across Virginia and the country calling him to immediately resign. He no longer has our confidence or our support.”
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe denounced the photo on Twitter, calling the photo “racist, unacceptable and inexcusable at any age at any time.” He said Northam should resign, deeming the situation “untenable.”
On Saturday afternoon, Attorney General Mark Herring said, “It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down.”
Saturday night, more than a dozen progressive groups — including Planned Parenthood, Equality Virginia and environmental and labor organizations — issued a statement reiterating their call for Northam to leave office.
“We heard what the governor said today and we are not only unmoved but even more disgusted in his actions and changing stories. We reaffirm our demand that he must immediately resign,” the statement said.
New Virginia Majority, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Progress Virginia are among other groups that have called for Northam to step down.
“No matter the era, or the messenger, blackface costumes and Ku Klux Klan regalia have represented terror and fear for communities of color since Reconstruction,” said Harrison Wallace, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “There is no excuse for wearing them.”
Fairfax would become governor in event of resignation
If Gov. Ralph Northam resigns because of the scandal over a racist picture in his medical school yearbook, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would become the 74th governor of Virginia.
That would make Fairfax, 39, the second African-American governor in Virginia’s history and just the fourth to hold the office nationwide in recent years. In 1990, L. Douglas Wilder became the first elected African-American governor in Virginia and in the United States.
Article V, Section 16, of the Constitution of Virginia sets out the succession to the office of governor: “In the case of the removal of the Governor from office or in the case of his disqualification, death, or resignation, the Lieutenant Governor shall become Governor.”
Like Northam, Fairfax is a Democrat. He ran for lieutenant governor in 2017, defeating the Republican nominee, state Sen. Jill Vogel of Fauquier County. This is Fairfax’s first term in elective office.
Fairfax, who was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., is a descendent of Virginia slaves. When he was sworn into office, Fairfax was carrying in his breast pocket the manumission papers that freed his great-great-great-grandfather.
In private life, Fairfax is an attorney with a law firm in Northern Virginia and previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney. He is a graduate of Duke University and Columbia Law School and in 2013 won the National Bar Association’s “Nation’s Best Advocates Award,” which recognizes 40 top attorneys nationwide under the age of 40.
Northam said in a public statement Saturday afternoon that he would not resign but instead would work to reconcile the “people he has hurt.” Northam added that Fairfax, who did not attend the governor’s press conference, did not want him to resign.
In a statement following the Northam’s press conference, Fairfax did not join Democratic colleagues calling for the governor’s resignation. Fairfax’s statement said of Northam: “While his career has been marked by service to children, soldiers and constituents, I 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.”
As lieutenant governor, Fairfax is the presiding officer in the Virginia Senate. Republicans have a 21-19 advantage over Democrats in the Senate. The lieutenant governor votes only in the case of a tie.
Under the Virginia Constitution, if Fairfax does end up succeeding Northam, the Senate’s president pro tempore would serve as the Senate’s presiding officer. That position is currently held by Republican Sen. Stephen Newman of Bedford.
Newman issued a statement Saturday saying that “my wife and I have asked God to give our Governor wisdom in the coming hours, and for the health, clarity and resolve to do the right thing for the people of Virginia.”
“After this dark hour has passed, the President Pro Tempore must be in a position to serve as a healer, bringing all parties back together to work for a better and stronger Commonwealth,” Newman said.