Should Gov. Northam Resign Because of Racist Photo?
By Jim Owen
Prominent members of both parties are calling for the resignation of Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, over allegations that he posed for a racist photo.
Northam has been fighting for his political life since the picture, from a 1984 medical school yearbook, appeared. The photo showed two students, one in blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.
The costumes disguised the identities of the men, but Northam initially admitted that one of them was him. The governor gave a televised speech from his office, apologizing for what he described as a youthful indiscretion even though he was 25 years old at the time. Northam claimed that his views concerning race have changed during the past 35 years.
The following day, Northam denied posing for the picture. However, he acknowledged that he has some experience with blackface, having once smeared shoe polish on himself to impersonate the entertainer Michael Jackson. The governor vowed that he would resist demands for him to step down.
How the Scandal Began
Friday, Feb. 1, started like any other day at the governor’s mansion in Richmond. Whatever plans Northam had for the end of the work week suddenly became irrelevant when his staff learned about the photo’s publication on the right-wing Big League Politics website.
The Virginian-Pilot, as well as The Associated Press, confirmed the authenticity of the picture by obtaining their own copies of the yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School. The college’s president, Richard Homan, quickly issued a statement apologizing for “past transgressions” of the public “trust.” He stressed that the photo was “absolutely antithetical” to the school’s values.
The news came as a shock to many of the governor’s supporters, even some of those who have known him for decades. Northam had earned a reputation for speaking out on behalf of African-American issues. Black Virginia voters were vital in his election to the state’s highest office in 2017. Northam is among the few white members of the congregation at his church.
Before the picture surfaced, the former pediatric neurologist was already under fire for his support of state legislation easing restrictions on third-trimester abortions. The measure, which died before reaching the floor of either the Virginia House or Senate, would have applied to women experiencing serious health problems due to their pregnancies.
The bill sharply divided Northam from the Legislature’s Republicans, with whom he had previously been able to work to craft legislation agreeable to lawmakers in both parties. Vice President Mike Pence weighed in on the debate by arguing that the “reprehensible and evil” bill endorsed “infanticide.”
Otherwise, the governor had received widespread praise for his first year in office. The Richmond Times-Dispatch noted that he inked a bill allowing his low-income constituents to sign up for Medicare, and persuaded Amazon to locate part of its operations in Virginia.
Multiple Demands for Resignation
Within a day of the racist photo being made public, politicians representing the left and the right released statements calling for Northam to leave office.
While it came as no surprise that Republicans said the governor should resign, even Northam’s staunchest backers agreed. Among them were the Virginia Democratic Party, the state Senate and House Democratic caucuses, the Legislative Black Caucus, and left-leaning organizations like Planned Parenthood and the NAACP. Protesters gathered on the lawn of the gubernatorial residence.
Northam, desperate to keep African-American lawmakers on his side, sat down with them hours after the scandal broke. Following the meeting, the black caucus issued a news release thanking the governor for his past work but declaring that he could “no longer effectively serve.”
Similar comments emanated from the offices of Virginia’s top Democrats: U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner; and U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott, Elaine Luria, and Abigail Spanberger. Two former state governors joined the chorus for Northam’s resignation.
Democrats from outside Virginia also wasted little time in distancing themselves from Northam. Party leaders demanding the governor’s resignation included five presidential candidates: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and former Housing and Urban Development Department Secretary Julian Castro.
President Trump, citing the photo and the abortion bill, tweeted: “Unforgivable!”
Northam responded to the criticism by proclaiming he was “deeply sorry” for posing in the photo. He acknowledged that the costumes were “racist and offensive,” but did not reveal whether he was wearing blackface or the Klan outfit.
The governor indicated he would ignore the pleas for him to step down, asserting that he intended to complete the final three years of his term in office. He promised to “accept responsibility” and strive to recapture the “trust” of Virginia voters.
It did not take long for Northam to further inflame the controversy by changing his story. He held a news conference the following day to claim he was neither of the men in the racist photo. The contradictory statements left observers wondering which time Northam was telling the truth. The governor admitted that “many people will find this difficult to believe.”
Northam maintained that he had been too hasty in making his apology because he had never purchased the yearbook or seen the photo. He explained that after he examined the image, he was certain of his innocence. The governor said former classmates had told him that someone placed the picture on the wrong yearbook page. He encouraged the use of facial-recognition technology to validate his claim.
Northam told reporters that he donned blackface another time in 1984 – when he dressed up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest in San Antonio. He was in the west Texas city for his medical residency.
Northam struggled to defend himself. He explained that he grew up in a rural area where people frequently mocked black people. The governor said he had no idea how he got the nickname “coonman” in medical school.
The news conference stoked the fire threatening to destroy Northam’s career in politics. Democratic state Attorney General Mark Herring, who intends to run for governor in 2021, added his name to those demanding the governor’s resignation. The Legislative Black Caucus declared that by changing his story, Northam had “irrevocably lost the faith and trust” of Virginia voters.
There may be a way to force Northam out of office. Republicans in the Legislature are looking to the state’s Constitution, which allows for the removal of a governor with impaired physical or mental abilities. However, the law does not suggest that apparent racism or other wrongdoing is grounds for dismissal.
Northam’s Possible Successor
Waiting in the wings is Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Some Virginians think the African-American would be a fitting successor to Northam.
Herring said that, despite his own gubernatorial ambitions, he supports promoting the 39-year-old Fairfax to the position. Political pundits are already assessing the possible outcome of a 2021 Democratic primary pitting Fairfax against Herring. Virginia permits governors to serve only one full, four-year term, but Fairfax could hold the office for as long as seven years if he finishes Northam’s term and wins re-election.
So far, Fairfax has taken the high road, expressing his admiration of the embattled governor. He praised Northam for his work on behalf of children, military veterans and others. However, the lieutenant governor added that he could not “condone” Northam’s racist behavior.
Media Reaction Mixed
Conservatives in the news media seized on the scandal as evidence that Democrats, as well as Republicans, can be guilty of bigotry. Allegations by liberals that Trump is racist have put the GOP on the defensive the past two years. Now, the other party is in the crosshairs.
Fox News pointed out that some members of the left-wing media are blaming the president for Northam’s predicament. On NBC’s “Today Show,” Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude Jr. said Trump has “unleashed” a resurgence of racism in the United States. Pundit Zerlina Maxwell argued on the liberal MSNBC that the president’s advocacy of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border “normalized” bigotry.
Sean Hannity recalled that Northam, when he launched his campaign for governor, received endorsements from Sens. Kaine and Warner, as well as outgoing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The Fox News host made the case that some Democrats have long held racist beliefs. For example, 99 of the party’s congressional representatives supported the 1959 Southern Manifesto, a rebuke of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that paved the way for the racial integration of public schools.
In 1964, 112 Democrats voted against the Civil Rights Act. The following year, 70 Democrats opposed the Voting Rights Act. When Democrat George Wallace was the governor of Alabama, he infamously attempted to prevent black students from entering a school in Birmingham. Another Democrat, whom Bill Clinton considered a mentor, was the segregationist J. William Fulbright.
Hannity said Hillary Clinton was a fan of Sen. Robert Byrd, who was a Klan member before becoming a Democratic member of Congress. Joe Biden, the former senator and vice president who is considering a run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, once spoke out against forced busing to achieve school integration.