RICHMOND – Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam apologized Friday after admitting he appeared in a racist photo in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook depicting one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.

The photo was met by calls for his resignation from Democrat presidential candidates and some of his own allies, as well as a scathing rebuke from the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

Northam said in a statement Friday evening that he was one of the two people in the photo and that he is “deeply sorry.” The statement did not say whether Northam was the person wearing blackface or the person wearing a Klan outfit.

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The news rocked Northam’s administration and he thus far has resisted calls for his resignation.

“Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive,” Northam’s statement said. “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.”

“Well it’s never a good day for a politician when you’re confronted with the yearbook photo and the Washington, D.C., community in your state is trying to figure out whether you’re the one in blackface or the one under the Klan hood”.
– Matthew Continetti

The right-wing blog Big League Politics first published the photo on Friday.

Northam issued a video statement late Friday. In the video, he says he’s “committed” to serving out the remainder of his term, indicating he does not plan to resign.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus issued a statement saying the photo was “disgusting, reprehensible, and offensive. We feel complete betrayal.”

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, issued a statement Friday afternoon saying he hoped the picture was “inaccurate,” but said that if it is true Northam should resign immediately.

Taikein Cooper, who is black and is the chairman of the Prince Edward Democratic Committee, also called on Northam to resign.

“You can’t champion racial reconciliation, during the 400 year anniversary of enslaved Americans being brought to Virginia, while being comfortable under the hood and/or behind a blackface,” Cooper posted on social media.

In his apology, Northam said he would remain in office and heal the damage his past conduct had caused.

“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. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.

“I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their governor.”

Last month, Florida’s secretary of state, Michael Ertel, resigned after photos emerged of him posing as a Hurricane Katrina victim in blackface 14 years ago, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

Jack Wilson, chairman of the state GOP, said in a statement Friday afternoon that “Racism has no place in Virginia,” and that the “pictures are wholly inappropriate.”

Wilson said: “If Governor Northam appeared in blackface or dressed in a KKK robe, he should resign immediately.”

Republican leaders in the Virginia House and Senate had said in an afternoon statement: “This is a deeply disturbing and offensive photograph in need of an immediate explanation by the governor.”

Earlier Friday afternoon, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in a statement: “This is deeply disappointing and offensive. I want to hear what Governor Northam has to say about this.” Stoney, an African-American, had recruited Northam to run for state Senate during his tenure as executive director of the state Democratic Party.

As the evening unfolded, more calls came nationally on social media for Northam to resign, including from the NAACP and R&B star John Legend.

Julian Castro, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, called on Northam to resign.

“It doesn’t matter if he is a Republican or a Democrat,” Castro tweeted. “This behavior was racist and unconscionable. Governor Northam should resign.”

Castro’s tweet was followed later by one from California Sen. Kamala Harris, another Democratic presidential candidate, who said “Northam should step aside so the public can heal and move forward together.”

A quotation on the yearbook page reads, “There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.”

Vincent Rhodes, assistant vice president of marketing and communications at EVMS, said “Yearbook production was a student activity. We don’t know when or where the picture was taken. … We’re really not able to comment on a picture of a medical school student taken 30 years ago.”

Northam is an Eastern Shore native who graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1981 and attended Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. He represented Norfolk and the Eastern Shore in the state Senate from 2008 to 2014 before becoming lieutenant governor and then being elected governor in 2017.

In a 2017 interview with the Times-Dispatch, Northam said he had just recently learned that his ancestors were slave owners.

“My family’s complicated story is similar to Virginia’s complex history. We’re a progressive state, but we once had the largest number of slaves in the union,” Northam said.

An abrupt turn

Early in his tenure as governor Northam had enjoyed signature achievements, signing off on Medicaid expansion and wooing half of Amazon’s eastern headquarters to Crystal City in Arlington County. But one tumultuous week sparked a sharp turn.

The news of the photo surfaced two days after Northam made controversial remarks about late-term abortion that caused a storm in national conservative media and prompted Republicans to accuse him of supporting infanticide.

As governor Northam has stressed inclusiveness. In his inaugural address he noted what he called Virginia’s “complex” history.

“In a church on a hill 15 blocks from here, Virginia’s first elected governor helped launch the American Revolution when he cried, ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’ ” Northam said.

“But at the bottom of that same hill, one of the country’s largest slave-trading markets was coming to life. A place where Virginians would sell men, women, and children for profit.”

Race in campaigns

Race has played a key role in a number of Virginia’s statewide campaigns in the modern era.

In 1989 L. Douglas Wilder became the nation’s first-elected African-American governor, an event seen as a milestone of reconciliation in a once-segregated South. Virginia’s current lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, is the second African-American to hold that role, after Wilder.

In 2006, U.S. Sen. George Allen, a Republican, lost his re-election bid to Democrat Jim Webb after Allen referred to a Webb volunteer of Indian descent by a term considered an ethnic disparagement in some cultures.

Virginia’s growing ethnic diversity has helped fuel the Democrats’ winning streak in a state where Republicans have not won a statewide contest since 2009.

Then-Gov. Tim Kaine, now a U.S. senator, was the first governor outside of Illinois to endorse Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. That year Obama became the first Democrat in 44 years to capture Virginia’s electoral votes.

The day after Obama’s victory, Kaine stood with his wife, Anne Holton, in front of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at the state Capitol and said: “Ol’ Virginny is dead.”

In August 2017, following the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Northam – then the Democratic nominee for governor – said in a statement that Confederate statues “should be taken down and moved into museums.” He has not pursued that policy as governor.

Prior to his run for governor, Northam twice voted for Republican George W. Bush for president and at one point was nearly convinced by state Senate Republican leader Tommy Norment to flip to the GOP.

During his 2017 run, however, Northam moved left to win easily in a Democratic primary against former Rep. Tom Perriello, D-5th.

© Copyright (c) 2019 The Roanoke Times

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