Despite an televised apology, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam told a state lawmaker Saturday that he does not think he in fact appears in a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook and rejected mounting demands to resign.
The state party organization Virginia Democrats, which has called for Northam to step down, wrote on Twitter Saturday that “we have gotten word he will not do so this morning.”
State Sen. L. Louis Lucas office tells USA TODAY that Northam, in a phone conversation with the lawmaker, denied being in the controversial photo, which features a man in blackface and another in a full Ku Klux Klan robe and wearing a hood.
“Governor Northam did reach out to Senator Lucas to say it’s not him in the picture and that he’s not resigning,” according to a spokesperson for the senator.
The governor scheduled a 2:30 p.m. statement to reporters, according to media reports.
The denial comes only hours after he had publicly apologized over the issue and had acknowledged he was one of the two men in the photo, which appears on his pagein the 1984 yearbook of the Eastern Virginia Medical School.
In an initial written statement Friday, the governor 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.
“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,” Northam said. “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,” the statement read. “I am ready to do that important work.”
Northam later tweeted a video apology saying that the “racist” photo “doesn’t reflect” the person he is now. He also said he wanted to serve out his four-year term.
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.
The 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.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, describing the photos as “racist and contrary to fundamental American values,” called on Northam to “do the right thing so that the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia can heal and move forward.”
Former vice president Joe Biden,Terry McAuliffe, Northam’s Democratic predecessor as governor, and a half-dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood and state Democratic lawmakers, called on the governor to resign.
Virginia’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, each issued statements stopping short of calling out right for his departure, but saying Northam should carefully consider his next move.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the newspaper in the state capital, said in an editorial that Northam should step down.
“He is by all accounts a decent and considerate man,” the editorial said. “And yet, his poor judgment has undermined his standing with Virginians in ways that we believe will permanently impair his ability to act as an effective governor. He should resign and return to his profession as a physician, with the thanks of those he has served as a state senator, lieutenant governor, and for the past year, governor.”
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. Northam has yet to address the VMI yearbook.
His resignation would propel Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, into the governorship. Fairfax is only the second African-American to win statewide office in Virginia. Northam’s term was set to end in 2022.
Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, wrote on Twitter that if Northam steps down he will 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 Virginia 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.”
If Northam does not resign from office, it’s unclear what might happen next. Lawmakers could elect to examine impeachment proceedings as Virginia’s Constitution says elected officials who commit “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor” may be removed.
The wording of the law makes it unclear whether it could be used to remove Northam from office, especially since the photograph in question was from more than 30 years ago. The Constitution also outlines the line of succession, noting that the lieutenant governor would assume the duties of the office if Northam were to be ousted.
John Dinan, a professor who specializes in state constitutionalism and state politics at Wake Forest University, told the Washington Post that despite the vague wording, impeachment could still threaten Northam’s governorship and set up a test for the state’s Constitution.
“We do not have a clear standard of what constitutes an impeachable offense,” he told The Post, which noted that no governor in the state’s history had been removed from office through impeachment.
“The language of the Virginia impeachment provision is slightly different from the relevant language in the U.S. Constitution but is similar in providing little in the way of clear guidance for defining an impeachable offense,” Dinan said.
Jack Wilson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, called the photos “wholly inappropriate,” adding that “racism has no place in Virginia.”
State Sen. Richard H. Stuart, a Republican and one of the governor’s closest friends, said he had not been able to talk to him about the issue and did not know what to make of it, but stood by him, The Washington Post reported.
“He’s my friend and I will always stand up for him,” said Stuart, according to the newspaper.
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.
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.