February 5, 2019 / 11:15 AM / 13 days ago

Virginia governor hangs on amid outcry over racist photo

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Embattled Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on Tuesday resisted calls to step down over a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page, with the state’s main Democratic Latino organization joining the chorus urging his resignation.

The first-term Democrat came under fire on Friday when a conservative media website released the photo, showing one person in blackface standing beside a masked person in the white robes of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.

Northam, who has avoided the public since Saturday, has faced nearly universal calls to step down from within his own party in Virginia - seen as a key swing state for the 2020 presidential election - as well as from at least five Democratic presidential candidates.

Monique Alcala, the president of the Virginia Democratic Latino Caucus, became the latest to urge Northam to quit. In a telephone interview she said she believed Northam’s political record showed he was not racist but that he should resign because he had lost the moral authority to lead.

“On matters of equity and justice you really have to have trust with the community, and this has really violated that trust,” she said.

Northam, 59, who is white, initially apologized on Friday and said he was one of the two people in the photo. He changed his story a day later, saying he did not appear in the picture but had dressed in blackface at a dance competition that year to portray pop star Michael Jackson.

The origins of blackface date to 19th-century “minstrel” shows in which white performers covered their faces in black grease paint to caricature slaves.

Northam, who took office a year ago, has vowed to finish his four-year term. Without public fanfare on Tuesday, he quietly signed legislation to provide $750 million in cash incentives to Amazon.com Inc in return for the online giant’s promise to create 38,000 new jobs in Virginia.

Northam has otherwise huddled with advisers and cabinet officers while his political heir apparent, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, 39, confronted a potential scandal of his own.

Fairfax on Monday denied a sexual assault allegation that was reported against him on the same website that first disclosed the Northam yearbook photo.

The Big League Politics site posted a private Facebook message on Sunday purportedly obtained from the accuser with her permission by a friend suggesting that Fairfax had assaulted her during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. While the Facebook post did not explicitly name Fairfax, the website’s story linked him to the allegation.

Fairfax on Monday acknowledged having had a consensual encounter with the woman in 2004 but said the story of an assault was “totally fabricated.”

At least two media outlets, including the Washington Post, said a woman had approached them more than a year ago with the same allegation, but that they had been unable to substantiate her account.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, accompanied by his wife Pamela Northam announces he will not resign during a news conference in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. February 2, 2019. Picture taken February 2, 2019. REUTERS/ Jay Paul

Fairfax has been non-committal on Northam’s future, saying it was up to the governor to decide his next move but that he would be ready to step up if needed.

Should Northam resign, Fairfax would succeed him to become the second African-American governor in the history of Virginia, where his great-great-great grandfather was a slave. The first was Douglas Wilder, a Democrat elected in 1989.

If Fairfax were also to step aside, state Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, is next in line to become governor. Herring, who has declared his intention to run for the state’s top elected office in the next gubernatorial race in 2021, called on Saturday for Northam to resign and pledged his “complete support” for Fairfax.

Reporting by Gary Robertson in Richmond; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman

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