Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam defies calls for his resignation, reversing earlier statement over appearance in a racist photo

Phil McCausland
Key Points
  • Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam does not plan to leave his office despite pressure from prominent lawmakers to resign over a racially offensive photo that appeared on his medical school yearbook page.
  • Northam said on Saturday that it was not him in the picture, even after rendering an apology on Friday.
STERLING, VA - NOVEMBER 03: Virginia Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, answers questions while campaigning at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society following Friday prayers November 3, 2017 in Sterling, Virginia. Virginia will elect the next governor of the state next Tuesday, November 7. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Win McNamee | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he will not leave his office despite pressure from prominent lawmakers to resign over a racially offensive photo that appeared on his medical school yearbook page. The photo shows one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe.

Northam held a press conference on Saturday afternoon at the governor's mansion where he once again apologized for the image, but said he had nothing to do with it. He said the first time he saw the photo was on Friday, he did not attend that party and the picture is not of him.

"I reflected with my family and classmates from the time and affirmed my conclusion that I am not the person in that photo," North said, calling the image "offensive, racist and despicable."

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One of the reasons Northam said he remembers that he is not in the image is because he participated in a dance competition the same year the yearbook was published — 1984 — in which he used shoe polish to darken his face for a Michael Jackson costume.

"It is because my memory of that episode is so vivid that I truly believe that I am not in that picture of the yearbook," Northam said.

"I certainly take responsibility for what happened in San Antonio," Northam added later. "I have learned from that. But this was not my picture, that was not my costume, as either black face or KKK."

The governor said he does not expect everyone to believe his account, at least not immediately, nor does he expect to be immediately forgiven. He said he would not resign because that would be the easier path.

"I am ready to earn your forgiveness, and I am ready to begin today," he said.

Northam originally apologized Friday on Twitter "for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now."

But Northam told Virginia State Senator Louise Lucas earlier on Saturday that it was not him in the picture, according to the senator's spokesperson. The apology Friday, which called the image "clearly racist and offensive," acknowledged his appearance in the photo and suggests he did, at one point, think he might have been one of the people pictured.

An hour after he made that statement, Northam said he realized that it was not him in the image after all.

"When I was shown this last night it was horrific. It really horrified me. We did what we needed to do last night and that was to reach out and apologize to those who may be hurt, but the more time I've had, I've realized I have no recollection of dressing up like that," the governor said at the press conference on Saturday.

'Do the correct thing and resign'

A second Virginia Democrat told NBC News that Northam said earlier Saturday that he did not believe he was in the image and would not resign. Northam also said that classmates of his from Eastern Virginia Medical School told him that they believed some of the pictures in the yearbook had been mixed up, according to the source.

The Democratic Party of Virginia released a statement on Saturday after learning that Northam did not plan to resign. "We made the decision to let Governor Northam do the correct thing and resign this morning — we have gotten word he will not do so this morning."

Despite Northam's expected announcement and claims that he is not in the image, the state party said their views had not changed.

"We stand with Democrats across Virginia and the country calling him to immediately resign," the statement said. "He no longer has our confidence or our support. Governor Northam must end this chapter immediately, step down, and let Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax heal Virginia's wounds and move us forward."

Northam resisted calls for his resignation in that statement, however, stating in a video of the apology that he would keep on fighting for Virginia. "I'm committed to continuing that fight through the remainder of my term," he said.

But pressure continued to grow as the Virginia House Democratic caucus, Senate Democratic caucus and Virginia black caucus all came out against the governor.

"We are having trouble reconciling our experience with Governor Northam with what we see in this photo," the House Democrats said in a statement Friday. "We regret to say that we are no longer confident in the Governor's representation of Virginians."

Fromer Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Northam's predecessor and a close ally, notably joined the calls for him to resign. "The situation that he has put himself and the Commonwealth of Virginia in is untenable. It's time for Ralph to step down, and for the Commonwealth to move forward," he tweeted.

With the state party maintaing their position, it is unlikely these particular Virginia Democrats will reconsider their position after Northam's latest claim. Nevertheless, a notable statement came from former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, the first and only African-American to serve as governor in Virginia.

"It has never been right, in Virginia, nor anywhere else to participate in or condone such mockery or insensitive behavior and for that Gov. Northam should be criticized," the former governor wrote on Twitter, noting that many had asked him to respond to this latest revelation.

The elder statesman of Virginia politics, however, declined to call for Northam's resignation.

The choice of his continuing in office is his to make," Wilder concluded.

Still, several Democrats who have announced interest in a 2020 presidential run — Julian Castro, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — called for Northam's resignation.

"Racism has no place in Virginia," said Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Jack Wilson in a statement before Northam apologized. "These pictures are wholly inappropriate. If Governor Northam appeared in blackface or dressed in a KKK robe, he should resign immediately."

The photo from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook ran alongside pictures of and personal information about Northam.

NBC News verified the yearbook pictures with the school. NBC News is not aware of the identities of both of the men in the picture in blackface or the Klan robes. All the other photos on the page are clearly of Northam: one in a suit jacket, one in a cowboy hat where he is holding a beer, one sitting next to a Corvette.

Vincent Rhodes, chief communications officer for the school, said the production of the yearbook was a student activity, adding, "We don't know when or where the picture was taken and we don't know anything about its content."

The NAACP also said the Virginia Democrat should step down. "Black face in any manner is always racist and never okay. No matter the party affiliation, we can not stand for such behavior," said the organization's president, Derrick Johnson.

Northam, a doctor, came under fire from Republicans earlier this week, who accused him of supporting infanticide because of comments he made in support of allowing late-term abortions when the fetus is severely deformed or would be unable to survive after birth.

He was elected governor in 2017 in a hotly-contested race against Republican Ed Gillespie. Northam said he supported taking down Confederate monuments, a stance Gillespie blasted him for.

In his victory speech, Northam, an Army veteran and pediatric neurologist, said, "Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry."

"It's going to take a doctor to heal our differences. And I'm here to tell you, the doctor is in!" he declared.

The yearbook photo was first reported by Big League Politics, a far-right website that often promotes conspiracy theories.