In a reversal of his previous comments, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam says he is not pictured in the racist photo from his yearbook and he will not be stepping down from his post, despite calls for his resignation from both Republicans and his fellow Democrats after the image came to light on Friday.
The photograph, which shows one man dressed in blackface and another as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, is sourced from Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. It sparked instant outcry across the aisle, including from several Democratic presidential candidates.
Northam previously admitted he was pictured in the photo, although he did not clarify which of the two men he was, and accepted responsibility in a statement released Friday evening. However, during a press conference on Saturday afternoon, Northam backtracked and doubled down on his previously stated intention to remain in office and fulfill his four-year term through 2022.
“When my staff showed me the photo in question yesterday, I was seeing it for the first time,” Northam said. “When I was confronted with the images yesterday, I was appalled with what was on my page, but I believed then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo.”
Northam said that conversations with his family and former classmates “affirmed” his conclusion that he is not in the photo. The New York Times reports Northam also considered running facial recognition software on the picture to prove it was not him.
In an attempt to present further evidence that he is not in the yearbook photo, Northam also mentioned his clear recollection of making similar but unrelated “mistakes” during that period of his life, including his participation in a dance contest where he darkened his face for a Michael Jackson costume.
“It is because my memory of that episode is so vivid that I truly do not believe I am in the picture in my yearbook,” Northam explained after saying he had no recollection at all of being in the photograph. “You remember these things.”
Northam has faced intense political pressure over the last 24 hours due to the controversy. Democratic party leaders at the state and national level have pressured him to step down from his post — before his press conference even ended, the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus only amplified its call for Northam’s resignation — but Northam has not heeded their message.
As far as constitutional options go, the Virginia legislature could try to move towards impeachment. The Virginia state constitution says elected officials who have acted “against the Commonwealth by malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crimes or misdemeanor” may be removed. Should the Virginia legislation take the issue up, it would require a majority vote from the House of Delegates and an impeachment trial conducted by the State Senate. A two-thirds Senate majority vote would be required for a conviction.
However, there is no precedent for the procedure; The Washington Post reports that no governor of Virginia has ever been impeached.
Should Northam decide to resign or if impeachment is successfully enacted, he would be succeeded by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Fairfax, only the second black official to be elected statewide office in Virginia’s history, released a statement condemning Northam’s past behavior.
“Now more than ever, we must make decisions in the best interests of the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Fairfax said. He did not ask for Northam’s resignation.
Besides condemning and politically distancing themselves from Northam, most critics’ options to challenge his seat remain fairly limited for the time being. But Northam’s potential future prospects, including running for higher office or being appointed to a presidential cabinet position, have been significantly jeopardized by this incident.
For now, Northam says he intends to remain in office in order to earn Virginians’ forgiveness and regain their trust.
“If I were to listen to the voices calling on me to resign from my office today, I could spare myself from the difficult path that lies ahead. I could avoid an honest conversation about harmful actions from my past,” he said. “I cannot in good conscience choose the path that would be easier for me in an effort to duck the responsibility to reconcile.”