Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, engulfed in days of controversy over a racist photo in his medical school yearbook, sought advice from key aides Monday about whether to resign, but gave no public signal that he would accede to widespread demands that he quit as the top official in the coastal Atlantic U.S. state.
Almost all key political leaders in Virginia, Democrats and Republicans alike, along with 2020 U.S. Democratic presidential candidates, said Northam, a Democrat 13 months into a four-year term, should resign. But he has resisted so far, telling his closest aides he needed more time to decide what to do, whether to quit or try to ride out the storm and attempt to restore his reputation.
When the picture of two people — one depicted in blackface and the other wearing a hooded Ku Klux Klan costume synonymous with the racist group — surfaced late last week in a photo on Northam's personal page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, he at first acknowledged that he was one of them in the photo.
Then, on Saturday, he said that he was not either one of the people in the picture. But he acknowledged that later that year he had smeared black shoe polish on his face to identify as pop singer Michael Jackson to enter — and win — a dance contest.
The furor over the picture was swift.
Northam's immediate predecessor as governor, Terry McAuliffe, said Northam, who was McAuliffe's lieutenant governor, "will do the right thing" and eventually resign. Both U.S. senators from Virginia, Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, former Virginia governors themselves, also called on Northam to quit. State lawmakers also said Northam should resign, which would elevate Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, an African-American, to the governorship, making him the second black in the state to hold the office.
Fairfax said, "There's a lot uncertainty right now." But he said he was prepared to take over the governorship if Northam resigns.
While Republican state lawmakers called for Northam's resignation, state House Speaker Kirk Cox, leader of the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, expressed "rightful hesitation" about trying to force Northam from office.
"Obviously you have to consider that to some degree you're overturning an election," Cox said. "I think the constitutional provisions are very specific ... it really does call for mental or physical incapacitation."
Cox called the controversy over the yearbook picture and Northam's link to it a "painful and heartbreaking moment for the commonwealth."