Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam will not resign, says he is not in racist photo

The governor said he did use shoe polish on his face for a Michael Jackson costume in the same year the yearbook was published, but he is not in that photo.

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By Phil McCausland

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he will not leave his office despite pressure from prominent lawmakers to resign over a racially offensive photo that appeared on his medical school yearbook page. The photo shows one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe.

Northam held a press conference on Saturday afternoon at the governor's mansion where he once again apologized for the image, but said he had nothing to do with it. He said the first time he saw the photo was on Friday, he did not attend that party and the picture is not of him.

"I reflected with my family and classmates from the time and affirmed my conclusion that I am not the person in that photo," North said, calling the image "offensive, racist and despicable."

A photo on Ralph Northam's page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School's 1984 yearbook appears to show a man in blackface.Courtesy Eastern Virginia Medical School

One of the reasons Northam said he is certain that he is not in the image is because he participated in a dance competition in San Antonio, Texas, the same year the yearbook was published — 1984 — in which he used shoe polish to darken his face for a Michael Jackson costume.

"It is because my memory of that episode is so vivid that I truly believe that I am not in that picture of the yearbook," Northam said.

“I certainly take responsibility for what happened in San Antonio,” Northam added later. “I have learned from that.”

Northam originally apologized Friday on Twitter "for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now."

An hour after he made that statement, Northam said he realized that it was not him in the image after all.

"When I was shown this last night, it was horrific. It really horrified me. We did what we needed to do last night and that was to reach out and apologize to those who may be hurt, but the more time I've had, I've realized I have no recollection of dressing up like that," the governor said at the press conference on Saturday.

The governor said he does not expect everyone to believe his account, at least not immediately, nor does he expect to be immediately forgiven. He said he would not resign because that would be the easier path.

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"I am ready to earn your forgiveness, and I am ready to begin today," he said.

Jumping on a train of criticism and calls for the governor's resignation, President Donald Trump mocked Northam in a tweet Saturday evening for his reversal and berated him for his support of late-term abortions, which some Republicans have called "infanticide."

Northam, a doctor, came under fire earlier this week from Republicans because of comments he made in support of allowing late-term abortions when the fetus is severely deformed or would be unable to survive after birth.

Shortly after Northam's press conference, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez released a statement that said he had spoken with Northam on Saturday morning and he did not accept the governor's explanation.

"The Democratic Party believes that diversity is our greatest strength and that hatred and racism have no place in our democracy," Perez said in a statement. "And we will never hesitate to hold accountable people who violate those values, regardless of their party affiliation. It's time for Ralph Northam to step aside and let Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax serve Virginians as their next Governor."

Despite Northam's expected announcement earlier on Saturday and his claims that he is not in the photo, the state Democratic Party said they had given the governor ample opportunity to do the right thing and resign.

"We stand with Democrats across Virginia and the country calling him to immediately resign," the statement said. "He no longer has our confidence or our support. Governor Northam must end this chapter immediately, step down, and let Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax heal Virginia's wounds and move us forward."

Former Virginia governors and now U.S. senators Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, both Democrats, also said Northam must resign. They were joined by U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.

“After we watched his press conference today, we called Governor Northam to tell him that we no longer believe he can effectively serve as Governor of Virginia and that he must resign,” the three said in a joint statement.

“Governor Northam has served the people of the Commonwealth faithfully for many years, but the events of the past 24 hours have inflicted immense pain and irrevocably broken the trust Virginians must have in their leaders,” they said. “He should step down and allow the Commonwealth to begin healing.”

Pressure on the governor grew Friday as the Virginia House Democratic caucus, Senate Democratic caucus and Virginia black caucus all came out against the governor on the Friday. They were soon joined by former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Northam's close ally and predecessor.

Several high-profile Democrats, including a handful of those who announced interest in a 2020 presidential run, called for the governor's resignation. The NAACP also said that Northam should step down.

Nevertheless, a notable statement came from former Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, the first and only African-American to serve as governor in Virginia, before Northam's press conference on Saturday.

"It has never been right, in Virginia, nor anywhere else to participate in or condone such mockery or insensitive behavior and for that Gov. Northam should be criticized," the former governor wrote on Twitter, noting that many had asked him to respond to this latest revelation.

The elder statesman of Virginia politics, however, declined to call for Northam's resignation.

"The choice of his continuing in office is his to make," Wilder concluded.

The photo from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook ran alongside pictures of and personal information about Northam.

NBC News verified the yearbook pictures with the school. NBC News is not aware of the identities of either of the men in the picture in blackface or the Klan robe. All the other photos on the page are clearly of Northam: one in a suit jacket, one in a cowboy hat where he is holding a beer, one sitting next to a Corvette.

Vincent Rhodes, chief communications officer for the school, said the production of the yearbook was a student activity, adding, "We don’t know when or where the picture was taken and we don't know anything about its content."

Northam was elected governor in 2017 in a hotly-contested race against Republican Ed Gillespie. He said he supported taking down Confederate monuments, a stance Gillespie blasted him for.

In his victory speech, Northam, an Army veteran and pediatric neurologist, said, "Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry."

The yearbook photo was first reported by Big League Politics, a far-right website that often promotes conspiracy theories.

Frank Thorp V contributed.