Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia had a fragile, defiant hold on power Sunday as he and a quickly eroding coalition of allies rebuffed demands for his resignation after the revelation of a racist photograph on his medical school yearbook page.
Northam’s hopes for political survival, Democratic and Republicans officials increasingly believe, are a mounting humiliation for the state, and risk his fellow Democrats’ policy ambitions and their aspirations for crucial state elections this year, when all 140 legislative seats will be at stake.
“The question now is: Can you lead? Can you help us heal?” saidDemocratic Representative A. Donald McEachin of Virginia on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Given the actions that he’s demonstrated over the past 48 hours, the answer’s clearly no.”
Northam has offered shifting accounts — first, a Friday night apology “for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo,” which shows one person dressed in blackface and another as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, followed Saturday by professed certainty that neither person in the photograph was him. His stance, and refusal to step down amid a torrent of pressure from his party, has fueled a crisis in Virginia that has rippled into national politics.
“I tell the truth. I’m telling the truth today,” Northam said Saturday in Richmond, where he denied a role in the yearbook photograph but acknowledged that he had darkened his face with shoe polish for a Michael Jackson costume at a dance contest in 1984.
But elected officials and strategists in both parties said they believed Northam was too far compromised to remain in office, his authority and power undercut gravely by his whiplash-inducing efforts to contain the fallout from the picture, which appeared on his page in the 1984 yearbook at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
On Sunday morning, Northam worshiped at First Baptist Church Capeville on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, which he has long attended. The Rev. Kelvin F. Jones, who said he had told the governor Saturday that he needed “to be in a place where you get loved on,” summoned Northam and his wife to the front of the sanctuary. Dozens of parishioners surrounded the couple, who bowed their heads, their faces stoic, and swayed to background music.
“We circle and pray for them,” said the pastor, who opened the service with the biblical account of Jesus Christ and the question of who should be the first to cast a stone.
Northam asserted Saturday that he had never seen the racist photograph until its disclosure online Friday, in part because he had not purchased a yearbook. The photograph’s presence on his page, he surmised, was a mistake on someone else’s part.
Although Northam faces pressure from Republicans, his own Democratic Party has been the most vocal force in seeking a resignation.
“We no longer believe he can effectively serve as the governor of Virginia and that he must resign,” Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Representative Robert Scott, all of them Democrats and two of them former governors themselves, said in a statement Saturday evening. But as of Sunday, the start of one of the most important weeks of this year’s legislative session, Northam remained the state’s 73rd governor, even as he grew more isolated.
The question of Northam’s political fate has also reverberated to the barely begun presidential campaign, where Democratic candidates and potential candidates have insisted that he resign. President Trump spoke out Saturday night, when he wrote on Twitter that Northam had done something “unforgivable!”
“Ed Gillespie, who ran for Governor of the Great State of Virginia against Ralph Northam, must now be thinking Malpractice and Dereliction of Duty with regard to his Opposition Research Staff,” Trump wrote. “If they find that terrible picture before the election, he wins by 20 points!”
But most of the weekend’s political discussions appeared to focus on whether Northam was too politically wounded to lead the state. If Northam resigns, Lieutenant Governor Justin E. Fairfax, a Democrat, will ascend to the governor’s office. Fairfax, who is black, broke his silence after the governor’s news conference but did not directly urge him to stay or quit, saying that “we must make decisions in the best interests of the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”