Virginia governor faces pressure to resign after racist yearbook photo surfaces

By Grace Segers

/ CBS News

Can Ralph Northam avoid resignation?

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is facing pressure to resign from voices across the political spectrum after a racist yearbook photo from his medical school days surfaced on Friday.

His page from the 1984 East Virginia Medical School yearbook contains a photograph of two people — one appearing to be wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume. He said Friday night he is pictured in the photo.

CBS News also uncovered a page on Friday from Northam's yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute that had nicknames listed underneath his name. One of them was "Coonman," a racial slur.

Northam faced immediate backlash.

"Gov. Northam should resign, this type of character flaw is unacceptable for any elected official seeking the support of the Black vote," Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, said in a statement. "It's sad but eerily prophetic this revelation came during Black History Month; but while we uplift the current and historical achievements of African Americans, we must also acknowledge the extent to which racism is a part of our history in America."

Other prominent black political figures called on Northam to resign Friday night, including Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries.

"Ralph Northam served in our nation's military, treated thousands of families as a medical doctor, and had the audacity to ask for Black votes when he wanted to become governor, yet never once mentioned that he thought it was ok to be in black face or dressed as a Klansman," Bass said in a statement. "An apology now isn't enough. The governor needs to learn that it's not about what you do once you're caught. Instead, it's about the things you do when you think no one is watching."

Several Democratic presidential candidates urged Northam to step down, including Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Julián Castro and John Delaney.

Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who served as Virginia governor before Northam, shared that belief.

"Ralph Northam is my friend and he served well as my Lt. Governor and as Governor. His actions on display in this photo were racist, unacceptable and inexcusable at any age and any time," McAuliffe said. "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."

Virginia state House Democrats also released a statement on Twitter Friday night calling on Northam to resign, saying "it brings us no pleasure to do so." Virginia state Senate Democrats did the same.

The calls extended beyond the state.

"I don't see the governor's got any other choice other than to step aside," Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, the vice chair of the Democratic Governors Association who is set to take over in 2020, said Friday night on MSNBC.

A protest is expected to be held outside the Virginia Governor's Mansion on Saturday morning in Richmond, the capital of Virginia.

Northam released a statement Friday afternoon apologizing: "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."

However, he indicated he was not willing to step down as governor.

"This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians' faith in that commitment," Northam said. "I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor."

Several hours later Friday night, Northam posted a video on Twitter saying his previous statement fell "far short of the standard you set for me when you elected me to be your governor" and "I believe you deserve to hear directly from me."

"That photo, and the racist and offensive attitudes it represents, does not reflect the person I am today, or the way that I have conducted myself as a soldier, a doctor, and a public servant," Northam said. "I am deeply sorry. I cannot change the decisions I made, nor can I undo the harm my behavior caused then and today. But I accept responsibility for my past actions, and I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust."

If Northam does resigns, he would be replaced by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is the second African-American to serve in statewide office in Virginia history.

First published on February 2, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Grace Segers

Grace Segers is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.

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