Northam Out of Spotlight as Blackface Backlash Mounts

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Besieged by criticism over blackface admissions, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam met quietly with top officials in his cabinet Monday morning as pressure mounts for the Democrat to resign.

This image shows a page of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School. The page shows a picture, at right, of a person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood next to different pictures of the governor. It’s unclear who the people in the picture are, but the rest of the page is filled with pictures of Northam and lists his undergraduate alma mater and other information about him.

The scrutiny over Northam erupted on Friday morning when a right-wing website released a page from the governor’s 1984 medical school yearbook that shows a picture of two costumed men — one in a Klu Klux Klan hood, the other in blackface.

Though Northam responded Friday that he was “deeply sorry” for appearing in the photo, and “for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” he took another stance Saturday in a press conference.

This time denying that he was either man in the photo, 59-year-old Northam instead recalled a dance contest from around the same time where he used “just a little bit of shoe polish” to look like Michael Jackson.

After boasting that he won the contest, Northam appeared ready to demonstrate Jackson’s signature dance move, the moonwalk, until his wife, Pam Northam, stopped him.

Stephen Farnsworth, who is director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, remarked in an interview that Northam’s governorship is “hanging by a thread.”

A professor of political science and international affairs, Farnsworth said, even if someone comes forward and takes full responsibility for the yearbook photo, Northam’s revelation about impersonating Michael Jackson would create a second but equally impassable hurdle. 

“That’s a picture every journalist in America is looking for today,” he said.

Demonstrators hold signs and chant outside the governor’s office at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 2, 2019. The demonstrators are calling for the resignation of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam after a 30-year-old photo of his medical school yearbook photo was widely distributed Friday. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Northam has been in office since 2017, having risen to power as a centrist Democrat in the state Senate before becoming lieutenant governor in 2013 under Governor Terry McAuliffe.

The release of the blackface photo appeared just days after Northam faced criticism for speaking in favor of a controversial abortion law that would have made it easier for women, under the direction of a doctor, to get a third term abortion. 

President Donald Trump chimed in Saturday that Northam’s response to the controversy has been “unforgivable.” When news of the photo first broke Friday, Trump lamented the failure by Northam’s 2017 election opponent to find the photo earlier.

“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,” Trump tweeted. “If they find that terrible picture before the election, he wins by 20 points!”

Over the weekend, however, it has been Northam’s closest allies who came down on the Democrat hardest. 

In an interview Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” former Governor McAuliffe said Northam was a “a good, moral, decent man” who would “do the right thing” and resign.

“He will put Virginia first,” McAuliffe said. 

Northam has also faced condemnation from Virginia Congressman Don McEachin, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who at one time sat shoulder to shoulder with Northam in the state Senate.

“The question now [for Northam] is can you lead? Can you help us heal? Given the actions that he’s demonstrated over the past 48 hours, the answer is clearly no,” McEachin told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, gestures as his wife, Pam, listens during a press conference in the Governors Mansion at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 2, 2019. Northam is under fire for a racial photo the appeared in his college yearbook. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Virginia’s Democratic Party has been unsympathetic as well, denouncing Northam within moments of the photo’s release and reiterating a cry for his resignation shortly after Saturday’s press conference.

“Whether or not he was in the photo, he has lost the trust of constituents and elected official,” the party said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “A leader must have the confidence of the people in order to effectively govern, and unfortunately, that is no longer the case for Governor Northam.” 

For their part, Virginia Republicans, who control both chambers of the state’s General Assembly, have been critical but hesitant to call for Northam’s removal from office. House Speaker Kirk Cox to the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Monday that he was offended by Northam’s actions but didn’t think they rose to the level of impeachment.

“That’s why we have called for the resignation,” he told the paper. “We hope that’s what the governor does. I think that would obviously be less pain for everyone.” 

If Northam resigns he would be the first sitting Virginia governor to do so since John Tyler in 1827. 

Resignation would elevate Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax. In a statement Saturday, Fairfax did not explicitly call for Northam to step down and said the photo suggests the man he otherwise considered a friend had “a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy.”

“At this critical and defining moment in the history of Virginia … now more than ever we must make decisions in the best interest of the people of the commonwealth,” Fairfax said.

Fairfax spent Monday morning fending off allegations himself meanwhile – a renewed claim from during the 2017 election that he was involved in sexual misconduct. Denying the allegations in a statement this morning, Fairfax said the Washington Post investigated them in 2018 and did not find enough evidence to bring it to the public.

He promised legal action against those who have tried to unearth the report. 

But Shaun Kenney, former executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, said the news on Fairfax on the heels of Northam’s photo scandal spells nothing but trouble for state Democrats going into an election year when every seat in both the House and Senate is up for grabs. 

“If Northam stays, he has the potential to take the ship down with the captain in November,” Kenney said in an email. “Should Northam resign? Fairfax’s peccadilloes come into sharper focus. One gets the sense there are deeper problems afoot that cannot be wiped away with a resignation.” 

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