RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY/AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam met quietly on Monday with top administration officials, but gave no public signal that he intends to step down despite mounting pressure to resign over a racist photo in his medical school yearbook.
The Democrat was staying out of sight early Monday as he met with his Cabinet and senior staff, following a meeting the previous night with minority officials in his administration.
The meetings come amid nearly unanimous calls from within his own party to resign over the photo, which appears in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page and shows someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
Northam first admitted he was in the picture, and then denied it over the weekend, but also acknowledged putting on blackface to imitate Michael Jackson at a dance contest decades ago.
If Northam does resign, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would become the second African-American governor in the state’s history. He stopped short of calling for Northam’s departure but 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.”
Fairfax, meanwhile, responded to an online article which hinted at an allegation of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor. A statement posted to Fairfax’s personal and official Twitter pages early Monday morning called the allegation “false and unsubstantiated.”
The scandal threatens to cripple Northam’s ability to govern. He has lost the support of virtually all of the state’s Democratic establishment. Top Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly also urged Northam to step down, as did many declared and potential Democratic presidential candidates.
Numerous politicians and public figures across the country and in the Commonwealth called for Northam to step down in the days after the yearbook photo surfaced.
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 they no longer believe Northam can serve effectively. James Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, said it would be “exceedingly difficult” for Northam to continue serving.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe predicted that Northam — who served as McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor — will eventually leave office.
“Ralph will do the right thing for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Virginia governors can be removed for “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor” under the state constitution, but top Democrats said they don’t believe it will come to that.
Northam apologized on Friday for appearing in the photograph on his yearbook page. He did not say which costume he was wearing, but said he was “deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo.” On Saturday, though, the governor reversed course and said the picture “is definitely not me.”
His shifting explanations did little or nothing to sway prominent Democrats who had swiftly disowned him.
McAuliffe faulted Northam’s handling of the furor.
“If it wasn’t him in the photo, he should’ve said that on Friday,” McAuliffe said. “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.'”
Ultimately, McAuliffe said, “It doesn’t matter whether he was in the photo or not in the photo at this point. We have to close that chapter. We have to move Virginia forward.”
Northam, a pediatric neurologist who came to politics late in life, spent years courting the black community in the run-up to his 2017 race for governor.
He recently came under fire from Republicans who have accused him of backing infanticide after he said he supported a bill loosening restrictions on late-term abortions.