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Gov. Northam Resists Calls To Resign, Despite Demands Across The Political Spectrum

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There are shifting stories coming out of the Virginia governor's mansion after a racist photo surfaced in Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook page showing two people, one in blackface and another in a KKK robe. Governor Northam, who is a Democrat, initially acknowledged he was in the photo and apologized. But yesterday in Richmond, Northam walked that back, saying it was not him, and he's never seen that image before.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RALPH NORTHAM: I had nothing to do with the preparation of the yearbook, nor did I buy one. And so this was the first time - yesterday evening was the first time I saw this photo. It was shocking, and it was horrific.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now Northam says there's more to the story. And as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports from Richmond, he's refusing to resign amid mounting pressure.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: The calls for Governor Ralph Northam to step aside are coming from across the country and across the political spectrum, on Twitter and in press conferences and outside the governor's mansion in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) ...Now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Resign...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) ...Now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Resign...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) ...Now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Resign...

MCCAMMON: Later, at a press conference inside the residence, Northam called the image disgusting, offensive and racist. And he reversed himself, insisting he's not in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NORTHAM: I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe.

MCCAMMON: Northam says he felt he had to make a statement right away, after the offensive image turned up in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. But after reflecting and talking to former classmates, Northam says he doesn't believe he's in the photo. Northam says he'd remember if he posed for a picture like that because he clearly remembers another incident from around the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NORTHAM: That same year, I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume. I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that.

MCCAMMON: Northam is asking for time to look into the origin of the photo, suggesting that it was probably a mix up by the yearbook staff. But many former allies seem unconvinced. Both of Virginia's U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, have joined the chorus of powerful Democrats calling for Northam to step aside. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, NAACP and others were not swayed by the press conference and doubled down on their calls for resignation.

At a Virginia NAACP meeting in Richmond earlier in the day, college student Kayanna Branch said she knocked on doors for Northam's campaign. But she thinks he's no longer fit to lead Virginia.

KAYANNA BRANCH: I mean, he has no support from anybody. So it's going to be very hard for legislation that he wants to get passed. It's going to be very hard for him. And eventually, if he doesn't resign, they're going to probably start from the bottom and get him out of there. And that's a process, but it's going to be a long process. It's going to be worth it because he should not represent the state of Virginia while wearing a black face or the KKK costume.

MCCAMMON: Reached later in the day, Branch said she was not won over by Northam's explanation. And she still thinks he should go. Officials at Eastern Virginia Medical School, meanwhile, are promising an external investigation of their campus culture and all of their past yearbooks. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.