Northam says he’ll fight for ‘racial issues,’ in pivot from racist yearbook controversy

The Virginia governor fends off calls to resign, while his lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax faces sex assault allegations from two women.

The Virginia State Capitol.
The Virginia State Capitol. Racist behavior by the governor, attorney general, and senate president and allegations of rape against the lieutentant governor have cast a shadow over the state's government. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Despite calls from nearly every elected Democrat and Republican in Virginia to resign, Governor Ralph Northam (D) says he has decided to remain in office. He told the Washington Post in an interview this weekend that he plans to spend the remaining three years of his term focusing on racial equity and healing.

“It’s obvious from what happened this week that we still have a lot of work to do. There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity,” he said.

“There are ongoing inequities to access to things like education, health care, mortgages, capital, entrepreneurship. And so this has been a real, I think, an awakening for Virginia. It has really raised the level of awareness for racial issues in Virginia. And so we’re ready to learn from our mistakes.”

Northam has chosen to focus on those issues in particular, in hope of tamping down the furor that erupted Friday before last, when a conservative website revealed that Northam’s medical school yearbook page contained a photo of a person in blackface and one dressed as a Ku Klux Klansman.


Northam initially apologized for appearing the photo, then said he does not believe he is either person in the image, and then said he had appeared in blackface on a different occasion.

A week ago it seemed all but certain that Northam would have to resign because of the revelation. So far he has ignored a barrage of calls demanding he step aside.

As serious as the controversy is around Northam, the scandal surrounding the official who would replace him if he were to resign — Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax, Virginia’s only black statewide elected official — may be even more serious. Many of the state’s leading Democratic and Republican officials are also calling for him to resign over allegations of sexual assault that have been lodged against him.

Fairfax has denied the claims and issued a statement late Saturday calling for “all appropriate and impartial investigatory authorities, including the FBI, to investigate fully and thoroughly.” His two accusers, both of whom say the sex assaults occurred between 1999 and 2004, have said they would be willing to testify against Fairfax at a possible impeachment trial.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring (D) and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R) had called for Northam to resign, and then found themselves embroiled in controversies of their own over blackface.


Herring admitted on Wednesday that he also once wore blackface at a college party in 1980 and apologized. On Thursday, the Virginian Pilot revealed that Norment had been managing editor of his own college yearbook and that it had been loaded with racist images, blackface photos, and racial slurs.

On Saturday, ThinkProgress exclusively reported that students in his undergraduate course at William & Mary in recent years recalled racially insensitive comments were commonplace. Norment’s only public response so far has been to say that he did not appear in the racist photos himself and: “As one of seven working on a 359-page yearbook, I cannot endorse or associate myself with every photo, entry, or word on each page.”

A poll published by the Washington Post on Saturday found that 47 percent of Virginians want Northam to resign and 47 percent of Virginians want him to stay. Black Virginians polled said he should remain governor by a 58 to 37 margin. About two-thirds said they did not know enough about the accusations against Fairfax to decide on his fate — though the poll was taken before a second accuser came forward to say he had raped her. Only about a third polled said Herring should also go and the poll preceded the revelations about Norment.

While Northam’s, Herring’s, and Norment’s previous racist behavior is not illegal, if the allegations against Fairfax prove true, he could be in both legal and procedural trouble. Police in Massachusetts and North Carolina could still prosecute Fairfax. And Virginia state Delegate Patrick Hope (D) plans to introduce articles of impeachment against Fairfax as early as Monday.

Should a majority in the House of Delegates back such a motion, it appears Fairfax could soon (as president of the state Senate) have the opportunity to preside over his own impeachment trial.