News →

Embattled Northam Mulls Future As Calls For His Resignation Grow

Governor Ralph Northam said Saturday he does not appear in racist photo. Craig Carper

The recent discovery of a racist photo on Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page has drawn calls for his resignation from every corner of the Virginia political establishment and beyond.

The photo shows one man in blackface and another hooded and dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes.

Northam apologized in a statement Friday and acknowledged appearing in a costume that is “clearly racist and offensive.”

At a crowded press conference on Saturday afternoon, Northam surprised everyone when he announced he would not resign and denied that he had appeared in the photo in the first place.

“When my staff showed me the photo in question yesterday I was seeing it for the first time," Northam said. "I did not purchase the EVMS yearbook and I was unaware of what was on my page. When I was confronted I was appalled that they were on my page but I believe then and I believe now that I am not either of the people in that photo.”

To make matters worse, Northam described a separate medical school occasion when he used shoe polish on his face to dress up as Michael Jackson.

For Democratic Senator Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, the change in Northam’s story angered her as much as the photo.

“He’s lost the moral authority to continue to govern," said Lucas. "People don’t trust what he says. If you tell me one thing tonight and then tomorrow morning you tell me something else, I’m not likely to believe anything else you say.”

It’s a stunning turnaround for a man who just completed one of the most successful first years for a Virginia Governor in recent history. Just seven months ago he signed Medicaid expansion for 400,000 additional low income Virginians into law, a longstanding Democratic priority.

In December he introduced an ambitious new budget before the General Assembly with lots of new spending initiatives.

Now Northam has been stripped of his political capital to advocate for these priorities.

And the Governor’s political problems have quickly become problems for other Democratic lawmakers, as the entire General Assembly gears up to run for re-election in November.

Things were looking good for Virginia Democrats before last week. A recent federal court ruling redrew a number of House districts in their favor. And the announced retirement of Republican Senator Dick Black was boosting their chances of retaking the Senate.

Rachel Bitecofer is a Political Analyst at Christopher Newport University. She says Northam’s refusal to resign could change all of that.

“This complicates their electoral prospects dramatically," said Bitecofer. "So I would assume that he’ll begin to realize that his presence becomes a drag on the entire Democratic party.

Bitecofer says Democrats would do much better in November if Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, a young, popular African American lawyer, were to take his place in the Executive Mansion.

On Saturday morning, protesters outside the Governor’s mansion shared the same sentiment.

Francesca Leigh-Davis helped organize the demonstration.

“We trusted you," said Leigh-Davis. "Maybe you have changed. People do. But we believe in reconciliation. A black man stands behind you. Step away so he can step forward. Resign today.”

Fairfax says he was shocked and saddened by the photo but stopped short of calling for Northam to step down. But, he  says he is ready to serve the duration of Northam’s term as Governor if need be.

Despite the incredible distraction the Northam yearbook debacle has become, life goes on at the state capitol.

As they do every year, the House and Senate money committees gathered on Sunday to present their competing budget proposals, which they will need to pass by Thursday.

On top of that, they also still have a few hundred bills to consider by the end of the day Tuesday.

Unless he resigns in short order it will still be up to Governor Ralph Northam to sign, amend or veto all of them when they make it to his desk.