Embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Saturday that he was not in a racist 1984 yearbook photo of two men dressed in blackface and Ku Klux Klan garb, despite admitting he was in the picture a day earlier. He did, however, acknowledge darkening his face for another occasion that same year, when he dressed as singer Michael Jackson as part of a talent contest.
The governor also continued to assert that he won’t resign over the photo controversy.
“When I was confronted with the image, I was appalled that it appeared on my page, but I believed then and I believe now that I am not either of the people in that photograph,” he said at a press conference at the governor’s mansion.
He apologized for the picture appearing on his page, calling the image “offensive” and “racist,” but said that he had nothing to do with the preparation of the yearbook, and that he did not purchase it.
He acknowledged that he had initially admitted to being in the image, but said that “in the hours since I made my statement, I reflected with family and classmates from that time and it affirmed my conclusion that I am not the person in that photograph.”
Northam said that while he did not attend the party where the picture was taken, he did attend one the same year, for which he said he “darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume.”
“I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that,” he said. However, he went on to note that he had gone on to win that contest, in part because he could perform Jackson’s signature dance move — the Moonwalk. When asked if he still able to perform the dance, Northam paused to look at the space next to him as if he was about to attempt the move, before his wife Pamela said it was “inappropriate circumstances.”
He also said that he did not expect Virginians to believe him immediately or to forgive his actions right away: “I am just asking for that ability to demonstrate that the person I was is not the man I am today.”
The photo was first published by Big League Politics Friday and immediately resulted in a firestorm of controversy, leading to Democrats both in Virginia and across the country calling for him to resign.
His press conference marked a change from his stance on Friday, when he released a statement saying that the photo was of him — without specifying whether he was the figure in blackface or the one in Klan attire. He apologized in both the statement and a later video statement, calling the photo “racist and offensive,” but also pledging to continue in office despite the increasing pressure for him to step down.
“Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive,” he said. “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”
He said in the video that he has spent the last year as governor fighting for a Virginia “that works better for all people” and added : “I am committed to continuing that fight through the remainder of my term and living up to the expectations you set for me when you elected me to serve.”
But it didn’t prevent a flood of Democrats calling on him to step down. On Saturday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on Northam to “do the right thing” and called the photo “racist and contrary to fundamental American values.”
“The situation that he has put himself and the Commonwealth of Virginia in is untenable. It’s time for Ralph to step down, and for the Commonwealth to move forward,” former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said, calling the photo “racist, unacceptable and inexcusable at any age and at any time.”
Presidential hopefuls including Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. all called for him to step down on Friday night.
These images arouse centuries of anger, anguish, and racist violence and they’ve eroded all confidence in Gov. Northam’s ability to lead. We should expect more from our elected officials. He should resign,” Booker said.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said in a statement that the yearbook photos “rip the scabs of an excruciatingly painful history and are a piercing reminder of this nation’s sins. Those who would excuse the pictures are just as culpable.”
The caucus was not impressed by Northam’s press conference, and amplified its calls for him to resign.
“In light of his public admission and apology for his decision to appear in the photo, he has irrevocably lost the faith and trust of the people he was elected to serve. Changing his public story today now casts further doubt on his ability to regain that trust,” a statement Saturday afternoon said.
Republicans too had joined the calls that Northam should step down, with Virginia GOP Chairman Jack Wilson saying his pledge to fix the damage wasn’t enough.
“It’s not enough, it’s not acceptable and clearly we cannot establish a double standard,” he said on CNN Friday. “If this were a Republican governor, the calls for his resignation would be fast and furious and widespread.”
“He just basically lost the moral ability to lead the Commonwealth and so he should resign for the good of the Commonwealth,” he added.
Northam’s press conference comes two days after he sparked outrage with comments about a controversial abortion bill that one sponsor had said could allow women to terminate a pregnancy up until the moment before birth.
Northam, a former pediatric neurologist, was asked about those comments and said that third-trimester abortions are done with “the consent of obviously the mother, with consent of the physician, multiple physicians by the way, and it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities or there may be a fetus that’s not viable.”
“So in this particular example if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
While the intent of the comments were not clear, conseravtive commentators and lawmakers took the remarks to mean he was discussing the possibility of letting a newborn die — or even killing it outright.
Northam pushed back, with his office saying his comments were limited to actions physicians may take in the case of “tragic or difficult circumstances” such as a non-viable pregnancy or “severe fetal abnormalities.” He later tweeted: I have devoted my life to caring for children and any insinuation otherwise is shameful and disgusting.”
On Friday, Virginia’s Republican Party said that the picture was “unforgivable” and made reference to the abortion controversy.
“Given his statements on the right to life coupled with the most recent revelations, he has lost the moral authority to continue to govern and should resign immediately,” the party said.
Fox News’ Kelly Phares, Alexandria Pamias, Elizabeth Zwirz, Louis Casiano and Alex Pappas contributed to this report.