Pressure builds on Va. governor to resign over racist yearbook photo

WASHINGTON — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is facing increased criticism over the emergence last week of a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page.

A top administration official for Northam told The Associated Press that the governor is meeting with staff to discuss whether it’s viable to stay in office. The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, because the official was not authorized to speak about the matter publicly.

And while the governor dealt with calls to resign, his would-be successor, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, addressed questions of his own over what he said was “a false and unsubstantiated allegation” against him.

Protesters gathered Monday morning in Richmond urging Northam to step down.

“We will not get over it until he has removed himself and until he is replaced,” one protester said. “We are standing firm.”

In the morning, the Republican speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, said there’s little appetite to impeach Northam and that he should instead resign.

Asked whether lawmakers could seek to remove him, Cox said lawmakers would be hesitant to do so because it would amount to overturning an election, and there would be a very high standard for removal.

And adding to the pressure on the governor, Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said he’s told Northam the state can’t afford a prolonged period of uncertainty over his future.

Northam denies being in the 1984 medical school yearbook photo that shows someone in blackface, even though he had apologized for it Friday and said previously that he was in it.

Democrats are concerned over the compressed schedule in the Virginia General Assembly versus the distraction of the governor’s controversy.

“Monday and Tuesday our workload is extremely heavy … we really don’t have the bandwidth to deal with anything other than the sheer number of bills we have to pass,” said Democratic Del. Mark Keam of Fairfax.

Keam also said that Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly are locked in difficult negotiations over tax policy and that the governor’s problems hurt his own party.

Del. Charnielle Herring, a Democrat who represents the city of Alexandria, said Monday morning that her focus was on a busy day full of legislation and what she and her colleagues are going to do.

“The bills and the votes and the budget — right now, that is where my mind has to be,” she said.

Del. Hala Ayala, who represents Prince William County, said legislators “have to continue with the people’s business” despite the ongoing controversy.

“That’s what I was elected to do. We have to keep moving forward,” Ayala said.

Northam has lost the support of virtually all of the state’s Democratic establishment. Top Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly have urged Northam to step down, as have many declared and potential Democratic presidential candidates.

On Saturday, Fairfax stopped short of calling for Northam’s departure, but said he “cannot condone actions” from Northam’s past that “suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping and intimidation.”

And in a statement Monday, William & Mary President Katherine Rowe said that Northam had been scheduled to participate in a celebration Friday marking the school’s 326th anniversary. But after conferring with Northam’s office, she said, he won’t be part of the program.

Under the circumstances, Rowe said, Northam’s “presence would fundamentally disrupt the sense of campus unity we aspire to and hope for with this event.”

Fairfax decries ‘false claim’

In remarks Monday to legislators, Fairfax quoted a Bible verse, Ephesians 6:11, hours after a tweet addressing a “false claim.”

“We are deeply grateful to you at this 400th year of the existence of the commonwealth, 400th year since the first enslaved Africans were brought to the commonwealth of Virginia,” Fairfax told legislators. “We’re the intersection of history, and we need people who show leadership, who believe in the truth.”

Fairfax later told reporters that it’s no coincidence he’s being “smeared” by a “completely uncorroborated accusation” of sexual assault right before potential elevation to governor.

The Associated Press and WTOP’s Alejandro Alvarez contributed to this report.

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