Northam plans to defy calls for his resignation over racist photo

Image: Ralph Northam
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks to a crowd during a Women's Rights rally at the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia on Jan. 14, 2019. Copyright Steve Helber AP file
Copyright Steve Helber AP file
By Phil McCausland and Frank Thorp V and Linda Givetash with NBC News Politics
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A spokeswoman for the governor said he planned to announce at a press conference Saturday afternoon that he would not resign.


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, according to his spokesperson. The photo shows one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe.

After Northam 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," a spokeswoman for the governor said he planned to announce at a press conference Saturday afternoon that he would not resign.

A spokesman for Virginia State Senator Louise Lucas told NBC News on Saturday that Northam reached out to Lucas and told the senator that it was not him in the picture. 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 the people pictured, though it is not clear which one.

A photo on Ralph Northam\'s page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School\'s 1984 yearbook appears to show a man in blackface.
A photo on Ralph Northam\'s page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School\'s 1984 yearbook appears to show a man in blackface.Courtesy Eastern Virginia Medical School

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.

It is unclear whether those Virginia Democrats will reconsider their position after Northam's latest claim, but 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 — Julián 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, cameunder 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.

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