More Democrats Press Va. Gov. Ralph Northam To Resign | Connecticut Public Radio

More Democrats Press Va. Gov. Ralph Northam To Resign

Feb 3, 2019
Originally published on February 3, 2019 6:38 pm

Updated at 6:06 p.m. ET

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam faced mounting pressure to step down Sunday after a racist photo published on his 1984 medical school yearbook page sparked controversy on Friday that he has been unable to contain or control.

And one of Northam's biggest problems is that the loudest, most strident calls from his resignation are coming mostly from political allies, Democrats from across his state and across the country.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe appeared Sunday on CNN's State of the Union, and said resigning is "morally the right thing to do." Northam was lieutenant governor under McAuliffe.

Virginia Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin told NBC's Meet the Press, "I haven't spoken to him since Friday, I believe. And at that time he was apologetic for having been in the photograph and that sort of thing. So, I was really surprised when the next day he comes out and says it's not him."

So far, Northam has resisted calls for his resignation, and in a press conference Saturday said he didn't recall appearing in the photo and that he was neither of the two individuals depicted on his yearbook page, one dressed in blackface and another as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. This despite acknowledging on Friday that he was in the more than 30-year-old image.

He added that while he did not recall that photo, he did remember dressing in blackface as Michael Jackson for a dance contest at about the same time the yearbook was published.

On Sunday Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus told NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered: "The governor has absolutely no credibility. One day he comes out and says, 'I apologize for the photograph that I was in,' and the next day, he goes, 'Well, no actually, it wasn't me, but I actually did do blackface that same year, but it was because I was imitating Michael Jackson, and I'm sure you see the difference between the two.' No we don't."

Bass continued, "The way he has characterized 1984 ... 1984 was an exciting year. Jesse Jackson was running for president. Nelson Mandela, we were hoping would be released. There was heightened racial consciousness, and for him to dare say, that during that year, during those times, blackface was common is just an outright lie. So I do not believe the governor has any credibility at all."

Some of Northam's graduate school friends say they are shocked by the photo. Walter Broadnax, a retired neurologist who is African-American, graduated with Northam in 1984. He told NPR he was shocked to see the "abhorrent" yearbook photo as, in his recollection, "the campus was not racist."

"I can't explain the pictures," he says. "Ralph, back then and even now, is not a racist."

Harvey Rawls, who was friendly with Northam during their time at Eastern Virginia Medical School, says he's "extremely skeptical" that Northam is one of the people featured in the photo.

He says that while it's possible that Northam was "insensitive enough to be in a photo like that 30 years ago," the image does not gel with the man he knew.

"Ralph Northam is not that kind of person," says Rawls.

Mark Janczewski graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School two years after Northam in 1986. He says he remembers the campus being progressive for the time.

"It was a tolerant, diverse campus," he recalls. "We had a pretty fair ethnic diversity within our class. ... Any displays of racism would have been anathema."

That such a blatant display of racism somehow ended up getting published puzzles Rebecca Haley, a hematologist in Seattle who graduated medical school with Northam.

At the time, Haley says, the lessons of the civil rights movement were still fresh in students' minds. There were orientations for the incoming freshman on tolerance and diversity.

"It was certainly not an enclave of prejudice," she says. "This is a total anomaly."

The racist photo, she says, "was obviously some kind of joke."

Haley adds students in the class were asked to send in their own photos to the school's yearbook. Others, she says, would not have been able to submit pictures on your behalf.

Democratic party leaders in Virginia told NPR they are also still grappling with the revelations about Northam. Lamont Bagby, the Democratic chair of the Legislative Black Caucus in Virginia, said the photo's revelation was a "real gut check" because Northam was so well-regarded. "We absolutely love the man."

Bagby said he is still in shock, and "reconciling the man that [Northam] was, and the man that he is today. I can't imagine the man I know today participating in that."

The photo "represents hate in the worst way," Bagby said, adding it's been "very painful, for many members of my caucus, that actually can recall being rushed from the home because of a threat from the Ku Klux Klan."

Bagby said for members of the African-American community and many people in the commonwealth, "black face was never acceptable and it is not acceptable."

Northam's press conference "missed the mark," Bagby said. He called the press conference an opportunity "for him to resign gracefully and we are disappointed that he didn't do that."

Party leaders wanted to give Northam "space to resign on his own terms," according to a senior congressional staffer for a Virginia Democrat who spoke with NPR. "However, he seems to be digging in his heels"

The staffer pointed out that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would assume Northam's place if he steps down, is the descendant of slaves, and will help in the healing process for the state and party.

In a joint statement on Saturday evening Senators Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said, "We no longer believe he can effectively serve as Governor of Virginia and that he must resign."

"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," the lawmakers said. "He should step down and allow the Commonwealth to begin healing."

Early Sunday morning, former Attorney General Eric Holder, a prospective Democratic contender in the 2020 presidential race, described Northam as a "good, very decent man" in a tweet. Holder went onto write that he "regretfully" concludes Northam "does not now have the ability to effectively govern and effectively stand for the issues - moral and political - that Virginia and the nation must confront."

Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also urged Northam to resign, tweeting "This has gone on too long. There is nothing to debate. He must resign."

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After a delay because of the partial government shutdown, President Trump will deliver the State of the Union address Tuesday night. To give the Democratic response, the party has chosen Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia state lawmaker who came within striking distance of becoming the nation's first African-American woman governor. We wanted to talk about what we might expect on a night that focuses the nation's attention on politics, so we've called Congresswoman Karen Bass of California. She was recently elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Congresswoman Bass, thank you so much for talking with us.

KAREN BASS: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: Before we get to the State of the Union night, though, I do want to ask you about a story that is very much front-and-center right now, which is the - Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. The Congressional Black Caucus tweeted, an apology now isn't enough. He must resign. Tell me more about why you say that.

BASS: Well, absolutely. I mean, I think the governor just has absolutely no credibility. I mean, one day he comes out and says, I apologize for the photograph that I was in. And then, the next day, he goes, well, no, actually, it wasn't me. But I actually did do blackface that same year. But it was because I was imitating Michael Jackson, and I'm sure you see the difference between the two. No, we don't. And the way he has characterized 1984 - 1984 was an exciting year. Jesse Jackson was running for president. Nelson Mandela was - we were hoping would be released. There was heightened racial consciousness.

And for him to dare say that, during those times, blackface was common is just an outright lie. And so I do not believe that the governor has any credibility at all. I cannot even imagine how he could govern the state. And he needs to stop the pain from this incident. And the way to do it is to resign.

MARTIN: So let's turn now to the State of the Union. You're no stranger to these big events as - particularly, as a former speaker of the California Assembly. So you've been through many of these kinds of bigots. What does an event like this do? What is the importance of it?

BASS: Well, it's very significant. I mean, first of all, you have all of the leadership from the United States in the House of Representatives chamber that evening. From the Supreme Court, Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Senate, the House members, everybody is assembled to hear from the leader of the country what is the state of our union. What is the state of the United States right now? What is our condition?

And, unfortunately, I cannot imagine that it's going to be a positive message because I do not believe that Trump is capable of delivering a positive message. I think it's going to be a message where he is going to bash immigrants. He's going to talk about how much he's helped African-Americans, which I find incredibly offensive. I also hear he's going to rail on abortion.

MARTIN: Well, the president told reporters that it's going to be a speech that covers a lot of territory. But part of it is going to be unity. So we'll have to wait and see what he means by that. But what do you expect and hope that Stacey Abrams will say as part of the Democratic response?

BASS: Let me just respond to the unity thing because I do think he will have a message of unity. It's a message of unity to the 20 to 30 percent of the people that support him. He's used that message in the campaign, and that's when he's bashing immigrants. In terms of Stacey Abrams, first of all, I do think that she was the one that won that race in Georgia. She should be the governor of Georgia.

But I am so excited that she's going to deliver the message because if you followed her campaign or you've heard her speak, she's so inspirational, so hopeful, so inspiring. And I think the unity message is going to come from the person who should've been the governor of Georgia, Stacey Abrams. That will be the Democratic response.

MARTIN: You know, some people would argue that this is not exactly a great thing because very few people have gotten high marks forgiving the other party's response. If a person - his hand is, like, wooden - everybody remembers, you know, Marco Rubio taking the sip of water...

BASS: (Laughter) Yes.

MARTIN: The former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, you know, looking like he was a deer in the headlights. Are the Democrats really helping her by putting her in that position?

BASS: Well, you know, I mean, I do think it's a risk. But it - but I think the main reason it's a risk is because the State of the Union is so high-profile. The world is watching it. And so that's a tremendous amount of pressure. But I have full confidence in Stacey Abrams, that she can rise to the occasion. And I bet she knocks it out the park.

MARTIN: What message do you think the Democrats are sending by asking her to deliver this message?

BASS: Well, I think they're sending - we are sending a message of hope, a message of the future, an acknowledgment of African-American women and the leading role that we play in this country. And I think that she's the perfect person to deliver our message that we want, one, to deal with corruption in Washington, we want to lower the price of prescription drugs, we want to increase the economy and decrease income inequity by focusing on infrastructure and good-paying jobs. And I know that she will deliver that message. I do not believe she will be bashing anyone, unlike the president.

MARTIN: So, finally, what will constitute success for Stacey Abrams and for the Democrats on Tuesday night? How will you know if she's done a good job for herself and for the party?

BASS: I think if she's inspirational, I think if she inspires us and calls for unity, promotes a vision of where we can take our country to and also talks about the future - one of the things that the president does when he goes and focuses on his rallies - he's not looking at America. If you look at the chamber of the House, one side the Republicans sit on, one side the Democrats sit on. If you look at our side, we look like America. If you look at the side where the Republicans are sitting on, it looks like 1950. It's 95 percent white male, no diversity, a handful of women. And so I think she represents the future, diversity, inclusion, the way our country is going.

MARTIN: That was Congresswoman Karen Bass of California. She's a Democrat, and she's also the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West. Congressman, thanks so much for talking to us.

BASS: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.