Mystery of racist photo in governor’s yearbook left unsolved

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The mystery of whether Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was in the racist yearbook photo that nearly destroyed his career remains unsolved.
A months-long investigation ordered up by Eastern Virginia Medical School failed to determine whether Northam is in the picture published in 1984 of a man in blackface standing next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
Investigators with a law firm hired by the school said Wednesday they couldn’t conclusively establish the identities of either person in the 35-year-old photo that was on Northam’s yearbook page alongside pictures of him.
They also said they couldn’t determine how the photo ended up on Northam’s page but found no evidence it was put there by mistake or as a prank.
When the picture came to light in February, the Democrat initially acknowledged he was in it and apologized without saying which costume he was in, then reversed course the next day, saying he was not in the photo. But he acknowledged he once wore blackface decades ago to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest.
“No individual that we interviewed has told us from personal knowledge that the governor is in the photograph, and no individual with knowledge has come forward to us to report that the governor is in the photograph,” said law firm McGuireWoods said.
In a statement Wednesday, Northam, a 59-year-old pediatric neurologist who went into politics late in life, repeated that he is not in the photo and apologized again to the people of Virginia, admitting his handling of the episode “deepened pain and confusion.”
The findings are unlikely to have a major effect on state politics or Northam, who managed to survive the furor and has been trying mightily since then to make amends with black leaders. They have shown a willingness to let it go.
Del. Lamont Bagby, chairman of the Virginia Legislature’s black caucus, said the inconclusive report “doesn’t change a thing as it relates to the challenges that we have to do,” adding: “We’ve got 400 years of stuff to clean up.”
Virginia politics was turned upside down in a matter of hours last winter after a conservative website posted the picture. Black lawmakers and other key Democratic groups and top allies immediately called on the governor to resign.
Investigators said Northam did not believe he was in the photo when he first saw it but did not want to issue an immediate denial in case someone contradicted him.
“The best we can conclude is that he erred on the side of caution initially and immediately regretted not having denied,” said attorney Richard Cullen, who led the investigation.
Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, told investigators that the governor was “in a state of shock” when the photo surfaced.
During the uproar, Northam defied calls to resign and said he wanted to focus his remaining three years in office on addressing racial inequities.
The pressure to step down lessened significantly after his two potential successors, both Democrats, became enveloped in scandal themselves. Two women publicly accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, which he denied. And just days after calling on Northam to resign, Attorney General Mark Herring announced he, too, had worn blackface in the 1980s when he was in college.
Both Fairfax and Herring also rejected calls to resign. And other politicians around the South soon had their own explaining to do over yearbook images taken long ago.
The three interlocking scandals briefly raised the possibility that Virginia’s top three Democrats would lose their jobs and the Republican House speaker would become governor.
While Northam was all but invisible in February and much of March, he is making routine public appearances again. And he has won praise from black lawmakers and others for such moves as ending the suspension of driver’s licenses for motorists with unpaid fines, and a review into how schools teach the nation’s racial history.
Opponents still use the incident against him. House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert recently accused Northam of choosing to “repair his own racist legacy” rather than protect victims of domestic abuse after the governor vetoed a bill requiring a mandatory jail term for repeat offenders.