Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam rejected mounting calls for his resignation Saturday and, in a sharp reversal, said he does not believe he in fact appears in a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page as he initially thought.
“I am not the person in that photo,” Northam said at an afternoon news conference.
He apologized, however, for the photos being on a page with his name on it.
“I am asking for the opportunity to earn your forgiveness,” the governor said, adding, “I am far from perfect and I can always strive to do more.”
His remarks came in the face of widespread demands throughout the state Democratic party and beyond for him to step down.
Former vice president Joe Biden, Terry McAuliffe, Northam’s Democratic predecessor as governor, a half-dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood and state Democratic lawmakers called on the governor to resign.
The Democratic Governors Association also called for him to step down while Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Virginians deserve better from their leaders and that the governor “has lost their trust and his ability to governor.”
The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the newspaper in the state capital, said in an editorial that it was time for Northam to go.
The statement to the press at the executive mansion in Richmond followed his apology on Friday in which he said he was one of two people in the photos that shows a man in blackface and another in full Ku Klux Klan regalia, including a hood and robe. The photo appeared in the 1984 yearbook for Eastern Virginia Medical School.
Calls for him to step down erupted almost immediately after The Washington Post published a story on the photo, which was first discovered Friday afternoon by the conservative news outlet Big League Politics.
In a written statement Friday, the governor had 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.” He also vowed to push forward and work to mend the damage he said he had caused.
In defending himself on Saturday, Northam said that he did not buy a copy of the yearbook in 1984, the year he graduated, and had never seen the page with the offensive material until Friday.
Northam said that when he saw the yearbook, and noted that it was in fact his page, he thought “the most likely explanation is that it was indeed me.”
Later, he said, he “reflected with my family and classmates and affirmed that I am not the person in that photo.” “I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe,” he told reporters.
Northam, who says he was 25 years old at the time, also denied that he attended the party where the photo was taken.
“The reason I so vividly don’t remember is because it didn’t happen,” he said.
The governor suggested that the photo may have been placed on his page by mistake, noting that there are numerous photos of people in blackface on other pages in the yearbook.
Dr. Rob Marsh, who was Northam’s roommate for two years at EVMS, said when he first saw the photo, he didn’t think it was real, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
“I did not recognize either one of those people or that event. Neither one of them looked like Ralph to me,” said Marsh, who graduated a year ahead of Northam. said.
Marsh, 63, said Northam was “very respectful” to others as a medical student, and that he never heard him “mock anybody of any other race.”
Northam said that dressing up as a KKK member or in blackface would not be something that he would have forgotten, and recalled being in San Antonio in 1984 when he darkened his face with shoe polish to take part in a Michael Jackson impersonation contest, which he later regretted.
In attempting to explain himself for the photo being on his yearbook page, Northam said he wanted to apologize “to the many people who have been hurt by this episode.”
“I am ready to earn your forgiveness, and I am ready to begin today,” he said.
EVMS president Richard Homan also apologized over the incident, adding, “I find no explanation for how such a picture was able to be published in the past.”
He called the picture “shockingly abhorrent and absolutely antithetical to the principles, morals and values” of the institution.
A second yearbook photo is from Northam’s time at the Virginia Military Institute, which makes its yearbooks available online. Page 90 of the 1981 edition shows the nicknames “Goose” and “Coonman” underneath Northam’s school photo.
Asked on Saturday why he was given that nickname, Northam said only two men had called him that and he did not know why.
His resignation would have propelled Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, into the governorship. Fairfax is only the second African-American to win statewide office in Virginia.
Fairfax issued a statement Saturday saying he was “shocked and saddened” by the yearbook images.
“The governor needed to apologize and I am glad that he did so,” said Fairfax.
“He also reached out to me personally to express his sincere regrets and to apologize,” he added. Fairfax did not mention the calls for Northam’s resignation.
Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, wrote on Twitter that if Northam stepped down he would be the first Virginia governor since the Civil War not to complete his term. Sabato also said that if Fairfax finishes Northam’s unexpired term, he will remain eligible to run for a full term in 2021. Under state law, governors are not allowed to run for re-election.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, the state House Democratic Caucus and the state Senate Democratic Caucus called on Northam to resign late Friday, along with several key progressive groups that have been some of the governor’s closest political allies.
The state’s Legislative Black Caucus, which met with Northam Friday evening, said in a statement they appreciate his service, but added: “It is clear that he can no longer effectively serve as governor.”
Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina who recently spoke out against Republican Rep. Steve King’s remarks about white supremacism, also denounced Northam.
Jack Wilson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, called the photos “wholly inappropriate,” adding that “racism has no place in Virginia.”
Last week, Florida’s then-secretary of state Michael Ertel resigned after photos from a 2005 Halloween party showed him in blackface while dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim.
Northam, who previously served as lieutenant for Gov. Terry McAuliffe, ran for governor in 2017 in the aftermath of the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one woman dead and several injured after a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters.
The rally drew neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right, many of whom carried Confederate flags or wore clothing with Nazi or KKK insignias.
The race was one of Virginia’s most racially charged in recent memory and ended with Northam beating Republican Ed Gillespie. Voters were peppered with ads about the Charlottesville unrest.