Virginia governor digs in as bizarre news conference fails to dull calls for resignation

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s insistence that no, on further consideration, that’s not him in the racist photo that appeared on his 1984 medical school yearbook page, did nothing to quell the clamour from his own party Sunday for him to resign.

In fact, the Democrat’s stunning about-face — at a bizarre news conference at which he admitted putting on blackface decades ago and had to be stopped from doing the moonwalk for reporters by his wife — might have made things worse.

Northam on Friday apologized for appearing in a photograph that featured a man in blackface and a second person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. He did not say which costume he was wearing, but in a video he posted on Twitter, he said he could not “undo the harm my behaviour caused then and today.”

On Saturday, though, the governor reversed course and said he wasn’t in the picture after all. Northam said he had not seen the photo before Friday, since he had not bought the yearbook or been involved in its preparation 35 years ago.

“It has taken time for me to make sure that it’s not me, but I am convinced, I am convinced that I am not in that picture,” he told reporters at the Executive Mansion in Richmond, calling the picture offensive and horrific.

Northam, who is one year into his four-year term, again rejected demands that he step down.

While talking with reporters, Northam admitted he once used shoe polish to put on blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a 1984 dance contest in Texas, when he was in the Army. Northam said he regrets that he didn’t understand “the harmful legacy of an action like that.”

Asked by a reporter if he could still do Jackson’s famous moonwalk, Northam looked at the floor as if thinking about demonstrating it. His wife put a stop to it, telling him, “Inappropriate circumstances.”

Democrats disavow Northam

His shifting explanations did little or nothing to sway prominent Democrats calling on him to resign.

Both of Virginia’s U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, joined the dean of Virginia’s congressional delegation, Rep. Bobby Scott, in saying in a statement Saturday night that they no longer believe Northam can effectively serve as governor.

On Sunday, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told CNN’s State of the Union that Northam — who served as McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor — would eventually resign.

“Ralph will do the right thing for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe said. “He’s going to do the right thing.”

Demonstrators are seen outside the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond on Saturday. (Alexa Welch Edlund/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

His refusal to step down could signal a potentially long and bruising fight between Northam and virtually all of the state’s Democratic establishment.

Groups calling for his resignation include the Virginia Democratic Party and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. Top Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly also urged Northam to step down, as have many declared and potential Democratic presidential candidates.

If Northam does resign, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would become the second African-American governor in the state’s history. In a statement, Fairfax said the state needs leaders who can unite people, but he stopped short of calling for Northam’s departure.

Fairfax said he “cannot condone actions” from Northam’s past that “suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping and intimidation.”

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax speaks during an interview in his office in Richmond, Va., on Saturday. If Northam does resign, Fairfax would become the second African-American governor in the state’s history. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Northam was pushed repeatedly by reporters to explain why he issued an apology if he wasn’t in the photograph. He conceded that people might have difficulty believing his shifting statements.

“My first intention … was to reach out and apologize,” he said, adding that he recognized that people would be offended by the photo. But after studying the picture and consulting with classmates, Northam said, “I am convinced that is not my picture.”

But McAuliffe said Northam’s explanation was too little, too late.

“If it wasn’t him in the photo, he should’ve said that on Friday,” he said Sunday. “Instinctively, you know if you put black paint on your face. You know if you put a hood on. And so if it isn’t you, you come out immediately and say, ‘This is not me.”‘

Watch: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s news conference