State leaders under fire

Published 10:38 am Thursday, February 7, 2019

A photo page featuring Ralph Northam in his 1984 yearbook at Eastern Virginia Medical School that includes a photo of two people, one dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and one wearing blackface, surfaced Feb. 1. Governor Northam responded to the incident the evening of Feb. 1 through a print statement and Saturday afternoon during a news conference.

Gov. Ralph Northam

Northam is among several prominent members of Virginia government who have been in the public eye this week following admissions of racist actions and allegations of sexual assault.

The yearbook page, with the name “Ralph Shearer Northam” listed at the top, features a group of photos of Northam pictured individually in addition to the photo of the person dressed in robes from the Ku Klux Klan posing with the person wearing blackface.

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“A website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive,” the written statement cited. “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment,” Northam said in the written statement Friday.

“It is disgusting. It is offensive. It is racist,” Northam said in response to the photo Saturday.

Despite calls from constituents to resign, Northam said during the news conference he would serve his term and prioritize reconciliation.

“I am asking for the opportunity to earn your forgiveness,” Northam said in the news conference.

Northam, during the conference, said he was not one of the two members in the photo. He also said it was the first time he had seen the photo in the yearbook, having not purchased the yearbook.

“Even in my own statement yesterday, I conceded to that, based on the evidence presented to me at the time,” Northam said. “In the hours since my statement yesterday, I reflected with my family and classmates at the time and affirmed my conclusion that I am not the person in that photo.”

Northam admitted to using shoe polish to darken his skin to dress up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest in San Antonio.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who would be elected if the governor is out of office, has been the subject of a sexual assault allegation that was reported to have occurred during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004.

Fairfax and the person identified as speaking about the alleged assault, Dr. Vanessa Tyson, a fellow at Stanford University and associate professor at Scripps College, publicly responded to the allegation in statements Wednesday.

Attorney General Mark Herring gave a statement Wednesday admitting to using makeup to darken his skin while dressing for a party in 1980.

“In the days ahead, honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general, but no matter where we go from here, I will say that from the bottom of my heart, I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain that I cause with this revelation,” Herring said in the statement.


Both Democrat and Republican constituents, as well as community members, have responded in light of the news about Virginia leadership.

Taikein Cooper spoke about his disappointment with Northam, Fairfax and Herring’s actions. He said he remembered racial epithets used at University of Virginia concerning former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, the first African-American governor of Virginia.

Cooper is chair of the Prince Edward County Democratic Committee, but said the committee has not yet approved a statement. He said his comments reflect his personal thoughts.

“These men have all said that they wanted to make 2019, the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans being brought to Virginia, all about racial reconciliation and healing,” Cooper said about Northam, Fairfax and Herring. “None of them are currently equipped to adequately have that conversation because they are no longer suitable to represent the Commonwealth.

As Democrats, our disdain must be consistent. To be the Party of the People, we must do what’s in the best interest of the people, regardless, of political affiliation. Northam, Fairfax and Herring are no longer serving the people; they are remaining in office because of their own selfish motivations.”

The Buckingham Democratic Committee released a statement calling for Northam’s resignation.

“It’s clear to the Committee that Northam can no longer effectively legislate or work with legislators on both sides of the aisle in all levels of government who share our commitment of moving Virginia forward,” the statement cited. “Such activity that Northam took part in was unacceptable in 1984 and is unacceptable now. Judgement of moral actions should not be viewed through a politicians lens. Wrong is wrong, and Northam, who we feel is a good and decent man, is wrong in this case and needs to practice ‘The Virginia Way’ and do what’s right in resigning for the good of the people of Virginia.”

Diana Shores with the Cumberland Republican Committee released a quote concerning Northam’s resignation, citing his admitted racist actions and his responses to the proposed House Bill 2491, which would eliminate certain requirements for abortion in the second or third trimester. These requirements include the performance of an ultrasound and that two other physicians certify that a third trimester abortion is necessary to prevent the woman’s death or impairment of her mental or physical health.

“I feel that Governor’s Northam’s yearbook shows how far we have come to eliminate racism in our society, but it also shows we have much work left to do,” Shores said in the statement. “I do not believe he should resign because of the 35-year-old yearbook photo. I believe the Governor is sincere when he says he is not the same man he was in college. In fact, I believe he’s worse. The same attitudes that dehumanize an individual and generate racists mindsets are the same dehumanizing attitudes that would lead to a pediatric neurologist, such as Governor Northam, to promote partial birth abortion and infanticide. Virginians deserve better.”

A similar message was given by Buckingham Republican Unit Chair Dylan Slaughter.

“I believe he should resign,” Slaughter said. “Not just because of the photo. As bad as that is, we also as the Republican Party are very upset with his comments that he made a couple of days before.”

Cumberland Democratic Committee Chair Billy Tucker gave a statement Wednesday.

“Elected representatives need to meet a higher standard,” the statement cited. “They must stand up for what is right, and the Democratic party should uphold these higher standards, especially among its own. It is more vital than ever in this era of political division to do so. In this situation, our governor’s past actions bring to light the racism that has been prevalent in so much of Virginia’s history. We would like to believe that the images in the photo are a thing of the past, but they still surface to this very day. The photo is a slap in the face to the African-American voters who played such a large role in electing Northam. It is a painful reminder of their difficult struggles and the work we have left to do to heal the Commonwealth and our nation.”

“While I believe it will be difficult for Governor Northam to govern in the environment that his picture from 35 years ago and news conference statements have created, I do believe in redemption,” area resident Patsy Watson said in a statement. “I am hopeful that he, our state legislators and his cabinet can figure out how to move forward for the benefit of all citizens of the Commonwealth. If that is impossible, then he should resign. It is important for us to learn from this and make sure we take a good look at our actions and words as they relate to all races, genders, sexual orientations, faiths and nationalities. Insensitivities in our interactions with others are what cause wars, scandals and even the breakup of families. We should lift our prayers that our leaders will not fail to do what is right and just for all and that we can provide grace to those who fail as we all have needed grace in our own lives.”