WASHINGTON - Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Sunday he has no intention of resigning, despite widespread calls for him to quit because of a racist picture on his personal page in a 1984 medical school yearbook and his use of black face to depict a pop music star.
"I have thought about resigning, but I've also thought about what Virginia needs right now," Northam told CBS News. "And I really think that I'm in a position where I can take Virginia to the next level. Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that's why I'm not going anywhere."
Northam, a trained physician, added, "I've been in some very difficult situations. Life and death situations taking care of sick children. And right now Virginia needs someone that can heal. There's no better person to do that than a doctor."
Northam is one of three officials, all Democrats, at the top of the government in Virginia, an Atlantic coastal state, currently engulfed in controversy. Two women have accused the state's No. 2 official, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, of sexually assaulting them more than a decade ago, allegations he rejects, while the third official, state Attorney General Mark Herring, has also acknowledged that in 1980 as a college student he darkened his face to depict himself as a rap singer at a party.
Whites blackening their faces to appear to be African-Americans has a long history dating to the 19th century in the U.S. in song and dance routines known as minstrelsy. But the practice, in which blacks have often been depicted in tattered clothing and demeaned intellectually, has for decades been considered as a racist characterization.
There have been wide calls for Fairfax, an African-American, to quit in the wake of the assault allegations, but he has refused and instead called for an investigation. Until a week ago, when the accusations had not yet been leveled against him, it appeared that he might become governor if Northam, who is white, acceded to wide demands from Republicans and Democrats alike that he resign.
Herring, who also is white, is second in line to the governorship should the top two officials quit, but he too has resisted calls to resign.
The controversy over the three officials was touched off 10 days ago with the disclosure from a conservative web site that the yearbook page of the now 59-year-old Northam showed a picture of two men, one in blackface and the other in a white hooded costume synonymous with the Ku Klux Klan hate group.
Northam at first said he was one of the men in the photo, but a day later said neither of them was him. It has remained unclear exactly how the photo ended up in the yearbook of the Eastern Virginia Medical School and on Northam's page. The governor acknowledged blackening his face later in 1984 to look like pop singer Michael Jackson for a dance contest he won.
In the days that followed, the two women leveled serious accusations against Fairfax, while Herring acknowledged his use of blackface.
Northam, in the CBS interview, said the accusations against Fairfax "are very, very serious. They need to be taken seriously."
The governor echoed Fairfax's call for investigation, but said that "if these accusations are determined to be true, I don't think he's going to have any other option but to resign."
Asked whether Fairfax should resign, Northam said, "That's going to be a decision that he needs to make."
Northam said the same thing about Herring, leaving it up to the state's top legal official whether to quit.
A Washington Post-Schar School poll showed Virginians deadlocked at 47 percent on whether Northam should quit. African-Americans by a wide margin said he should stay in office.
The poll, taken late last week, showed that by a wide margin those surveyed said Herring should remain in office. About two-thirds of those polled said they did not know enough about the first woman's accusation against Fairfax to make a judgment on his denial that he assaulted her, but were not asked about the second woman's allegations, which were made while the survey was underway.