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Virginia Gov. Northam Reverses Statement On Racist Photo

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start the program today in Virginia, where Governor Ralph Northam says he will not step down over a racist photo on his yearbook page, despite calls from both national and state Democrats for him to do so. The photo in question shows a person in blackface standing next to another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Yesterday, Northam said that he was in that photo, and he apologized for it. Today, in a reversal, he had this to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RALPH NORTHAM: When I was confronted with the images yesterday, I was appalled that they appeared on my page. But I believed then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo.

MARTIN: Northam said that he is sorry for the pain caused by the photo, but he wants time to earn the forgiveness and trust of the Virginians - Virginian voters and look further into the origin of the picture. NPR's Sarah McCammon was at that remarkable press conference in Richmond, and she is with us now.

Sarah, thanks so much for joining us.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So Governor Northam said first he was not in the photo, said he was in the photo, then he says he was not in the photo.

MCCAMMON: Right.

MARTIN: How is he explaining what happened?

MCCAMMON: So yeah. That photo surfaced yesterday on a conservative-leaning website, and it was quickly confirmed by multiple media outlets, including NPR. And Northam's response was to release two statements, one a video statement, last night acknowledging he was in it, apologizing for it. Now Governor Northam says he's spent the past 12 hours or so talking to lots of people, including some of his med school classmates, and he says it's not him, and that he does not believe he should heed the calls to step down.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NORTHAM: I could spare myself from the difficult path that lies ahead. I could avoid an honest conversation about harmful actions from my past. I cannot in good conscience choose the path that would be easier for me in an effort to duck my responsibility to reconcile.

MARTIN: Now, Sarah, the governor acknowledged that a lot of people are going to have a hard time believing him, particularly after he first said that he was in the photo and apologized for it. So how did he explain all that?

MCCAMMON: Well, he says things happened really quickly yesterday, and there was a lot of hurt, and he felt he had to respond. He says he's had some time since then to look at the picture more closely and think about this, and he's sure it's not him. And, Michel, one of the reasons he says he knows this wasn't him is because he remembers another incident around the same time that he remembers with regret. He says he did darken his face - and this was in the mid-'80s at a costume party where he dressed as Michael Jackson

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NORTHAM: And I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put under my - or on my cheeks. And the reason I used a very little bit is because I don't know if anybody's ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off.

MCCAMMON: And he says after that, he had a conversation with a friend who helped explain how offensive that is, and he regrets doing it.

MARTIN: Well, even before he acknowledged that there was an incident involving blackface, politicians, groups across the country on both sides of the aisle, but particularly, it has to be said, Democrats have been calling on Northam to resign. Does his press Congress's latest statement appear to have changed anybody's mind?

MCCAMMON: Not really. I mean, calls were coming in, I should say, even right up before, moments before that press conference. The Democratic Governors Association, the Virginia ACLU, which are usually allies to Governor Northam, called for him to resign just before he took the podium. And in the aftermath, a lot of others have doubled down on their calls for resignation, including the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, House and Senate Democrats and others. So this does not appear to be stemming the tide of calls for his resignation, Michel - at least, not in the short term.

MARTIN: So what happens now? The governor said that he's staying in office, but he's clearly facing a lot of opposition. How does he plan to address all this in the days ahead?

MCCAMMON: He says he wants to keep looking into the photo, how it got into his yearbook. He says there may have been some kind of a mix-up. And he said he didn't even buy that yearbook, so he doesn't know how that photo got there, didn't know it was there until recently. He said maybe even using some facial recognition technology could help. He's also asked Virginians for time to earn their forgiveness, and he says he wants to have more open conversations about race.

But there is growing concern here, Michel, among Democrats both about the message this sends and also what kind of a leader Ralph Northam can be in Virginia. He's got another three years left in his term as governor, and I've heard a lot of concern here just about how he can lead. I also asked him during that press conference if, after these conversations continue, there are still calls from groups like the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus for him to resign, would he heed those calls? He said he would consider it, but he didn't make a firm commitment.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon.

Sarah, thank you so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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