The drumbeat grew louder Sunday for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign his post as controversy roiled over a 1984 medical school yearbook photo showing one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe.
On Friday the governor apologized for being in the photo, but then on Saturday he said he doesn’t believe he is pictured. He called the photo “disgusting, offensive, racist.” He did admit having blackened his face for a Michael Jackson costume.
National and state leaders from both parties have called for Northam to leave. On Sunday, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, like Northam a Democrat, and Rep. Donald McEachin, a Virginia Democrat and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, joined the chorus.
McAuliffe said Northam never displayed any racist sentiment while serving as his lieutenant governor. Still, McAuliffe said, Northam must walk away.
“It doesn’t matter where he was in the photo or not in the photo at this point,” McAuliffe said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We have to close that chapter. It is heartbreaking, but Virginia has to move forward.”
McEachin said he considered Northam a friend but added that the governor has lost the “authority” to lead.
“You know, we’re certainly grateful for the contributions he’s made to the betterment of Virginia,” McEachin said on ABC’s “Meet the Press.” “But the question now is, is can you lead? Can you help us heal? And given the actions that he’s demonstrated over the past 48 hours, the answer is clearly no.”
Northam, elected in 2017, said he is determined to complete his full term as governor. Virginia governors are banned from serving consecutive terms.
Virginia’s Democratic senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, have called for Northam to resign. The Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus issued a statement expressing “deep sense of betrayal, pain and disappointment.”
The Legislature could try to remove Northam from office, although the rules don’t address past behavior. Virginia’s Constitution says elected officials who commit “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor” may be removed.
“I know Ralph very well,” McAuliffe said. “It will not come to that.”
The Northam controversy comes a week after the Republican-led Virginia Senate insisted on continuing a decades-long tradition of honoring slave owner Robert E. Lee “as a great Virginian and a great American.”
If Northam exits, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, would become the state’s second African-American governor. Doug Wilder was the first – elected six years after the photo was published.
Northam grew up on Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore. He is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute in 1981 and the Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1984. He served in the state Senate from 2008-2013 and as lieutenant governor from 2014 to 2017 before succeeding McAuliffe as governor.
Last month, Northam went home to Accomack County to have his memories of African-American blacksmith Samuel Outlaw recorded for a documentary. Northam said Outlaw used to fix tools, tractors, bicycles and other items his family brought into the blacksmith shop.
“Growing up, the way we were raised, my brother and I, we didn’t see color — and I don’t think he saw color either,” Northam said. “He just treated everybody as human beings. I think that’s a lesson that everybody needs to hear.”
President Trump referenced the controversy on Twitter: “Ed Gillespie, who ran for Governor of the Great State of Virginia against Ralph Northam, must now be thinking Malpractice and Dereliction of Duty with regard to his Opposition Research Staff. If they find that terrible picture before the election, he wins by 20 points!”
Contributing: Carol Vaughn, Salisbury (Maryland) Daily Times; The (Staunton, Virginia.) News Leader