Virginia’s governor is facing mounting calls for him to resign after pictures emerged from his yearbook of two men dressed in a Ku Klux Klan hood and with blackface.
Ralph Northam, a Democrat and former paediatrician, was elected in 2017. But his future now hangs in the balance after conservative website Big League Politics dug out his 1984 medical school yearbook, and found the photo.
Mr Northam, 59, insisted at a press conference on Saturday that the picture was not him – despite having apologised on Friday for the page.
“There is no way I have ever been in a KKK uniform. I have never been in a KKK uniform, and I am not the person on the right,” he said.
He said he knew it was a hard story to believe, but wanted to “set the record straight” about the “horrific” image.
Ralph Northam’s yearbook page
“Yesterday I took responsibility for content that appeared on my page. I am not and will not excuse the content. It was racist, offensive and despicable,” he told the press conference.
He said he saw the page “for the first time” when his staff showed it to him on Friday, adding: “I did not purchase the yearbook at the time.”
He said: “I believe then, and now, that I was not the person in that photo.
“It is disgusting. It is racist. It was my responsibility to recognise it and prevent it being published.
“I know people will find this hard to believe. It appears on my page, with others I submitted.
“In the hours since I made the statement I reflected with my family and classmates, and concluded that I am not the person in that photo.”
Friends and classmates had confirmed that it wasn’t him, he said.
“Where this other picture came from, I don’t know.”
He said he had once blackened his face, in the same year, at a dance competition in San Antonio when he performed as Michael Jackson. He said it was etched clearly in his mind, as he realised it was wrong.
But leading Democrats, including Joe Biden and presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Julian Castro, have joined calls for him to resign, and he has lost the support of most of the Virginia state Democrat leaders.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, the state House Democratic Caucus and the state Senate Democratic Caucus all called on Mr Northam to resign late on Friday, along with several key progressive groups that have been some of the governor’s closest political allies.
Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, was expected to stand down
Mr Northam apologised profusely on Friday, but many still called for him to step aside and allow the current lieutenant governor of Virginia, Justin Fairfax, a Democrat who is only the second African American to win statewide office in the state, to take his place.
Mr Northam’s term is set to end in 2022.
In his first apology, issued in a written statement, Mr Northam called the costume he wore “clearly racist and offensive,” but he didn’t say which one he had worn.
He later issued a video statement saying he was “deeply sorry” but still committed to serving the “remainder of my term.”
“I accept responsibility for my past actions and I am ready to do the hard work of regaining your trust,” he said.
The apology did not reduce calls for him to resign.
Louise Lucas, a state senator and close ally of Mr Northam, described a hastily called conference call with black leaders around the state as “intense,” her voice breaking.
Mr Northam spent years actively courting the black community in the lead up to his 2017 gubernatorial run, building relationships that helped him win both the primary and the general election.
He is also a member of a predominantly black church on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where he grew up.
“It’s a matter of relationships and trust. That’s not something that you build overnight,” he told the AP during a 2017 campaign stop while describing his relationship with the black community.
Last week, Florida’s secretary of state resigned after photos from a 2005 Halloween party showed him in blackface while dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim.