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Pressure Mounts For Virginia Gov. Northam To Resign

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start the program once again in Virginia, where Governor Ralph Northam finds himself increasingly without allies. He insists upon remaining in office in the wake of the discovery of a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page. This morning on CNN, Northam's predecessor, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, repeated what many other Democrats in Virginia and across the country are saying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRY MCAULIFFE: For me, morally, the only right thing to do - and it was hard. I called Ralph on Friday night. It was one of the hardest things I had to do, was my lieutenant governor. We worked closely together. We did so many great things working together for the Commonwealth of Virginia. But once that picture where the blackface and the Klansman came out, there is no way you can continue to be the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

MARTIN: As the calls for resignation from political leaders on both sides of the aisle continue, Virginians who have supported Northam are wrestling with what to make of what's been a strange and painful 48 hours. NPR's Sarah McCammon has more from Richmond.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: While the Sunday morning talk shows were speculating about the future of Ralph Northam's governorship, in Virginia, this morning, lots of people were in church.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) I will bless thee, O lord.

MCCAMMON: At Jerusalem Baptist, a predominantly black church in a small town outside Richmond, Pastor Emanuel Harris didn't mention Northam from the pulpit. But he did call to mind the long dark history of racist violence on this soil.

EMANUEL HARRIS: You know how this church survived through 1880 and through lynchings and through firebombings and through all this stuff? Because you had believers who came out here. And we say despite Jim Crow and despite everything else going on, our God is bigger.

MCCAMMON: This is a place where Northam would normally find allies. He's often visited and campaigned in African-American churches around the Commonwealth of Virginia, but this morning, many churchgoers were concerned and confused.

WENDY HOBBS: I got a lot of questions.

MCCAMMON: Wendy Hobbs (ph) says she was disturbed by the image and the governor's changing statements about it.

HOBBS: Thirty-some years ago is a long time, but it was in '84. It was a post-civil rights era. No one should've been making fun to another race or trying to make a joke out of people fears of the Ku Klux Klan or the blackface.

MCCAMMON: Geraldine Harris (ph) - no relation to the pastor - grew up at Jerusalem Baptist and still makes the drive here on Sundays. She says she watched Northam's press conference yesterday.

GERALDINE HARRIS: I think that he'd made a really big mess of the whole situation.

MCCAMMON: Northam initially released statements on Friday, saying he regretted his decision to be in the photo and apologizing. Then he went on camera yesterday to tell reporters that, on further reflection, he wasn't in that photo, though he does regretfully remember appearing in blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume around that time. Harris says she voted for Northam. But she finds his changing story hard to understand and thinks he should resign.

G. HARRIS: He really should not have had that press conference yesterday. What he said Friday in his apology should have just stood. He admit it. So how can you rethink less than 24 hours later, well, that wasn't me? So how the people going to really accept this?

MCCAMMON: But not everyone here is ready to see Northam go.

GEORGE FLEMING: The first thing I would like to do is meet the governor and give him a big hug.

MCCAMMON: George Fleming (ph) is a deacon at Jerusalem Baptist. He says he's been impressed with Northam and hopes he can find a way to finish out his term.

FLEMING: But I'd like to give him a big hug, let him know that I forgive him. But I would like to see him to go forward and show the world that he can be a much better person.

MCCAMMON: The pastor, Emanuel Harris, says he voted for Northam, and he agrees forgiveness is possible. But it might not be enough.

E. HARRIS: Just because I forgive you doesn't mean I'll let you mistreat me or I excuse a behavior.

MCCAMMON: Harris says he's not yet ready to call for Northam resignation. But he finds the photo shocking and Northam's response to the scandal and his changing explanations confusing.

E. HARRIS: We all have a past, and we all can be forgiven for our past. But the question is, when it comes to leadership, is it your past or is it your present? And I think that's the question that we don't really know.

MCCAMMON: Meanwhile, many beleaguered Democrats here are gearing up for a critical week with key legislative deadlines on the schedule as their leader finds himself increasingly alone.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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