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Virginia governor's future in limbo amid outcry over racist photo

Updated: 05-02-2019 16:30 IST
Virginia governor's future in limbo amid outcry over racist photo

Embattled Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's political future, and the leadership of his state, remained in limbo on Tuesday amid mounting pressure for him to resign after the revelation of a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page.

The first-term Democrat and former U.S. Army physician has been under fire since a conservative media website on Friday released the photo, showing one person in blackface standing beside a masked individual in the white robes of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan. Northam, 59, who is white, initially apologized on Friday and said he was one of the two people in the photo. He then changed his story on Saturday, saying he did not appear in the picture but had dressed in blackface at another point that same year to portray pop star Michael Jackson in a dance competition.

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 and has vowed to see his four-year-term through to completion, huddled with Cabinet officers on Monday as his political heir apparent, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, confronted a potential scandal of his own.

At a news conference on Monday, Fairfax, 39, 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 on Sunday posted a private Facebook message 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.

At a news conference on Monday, Fairfax acknowledged having had a consensual encounter with the woman in 2004 but denied any wrongdoing, adding that "now, years later, we have a totally fabricated story out of the blue to attack me." 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.

Fairfax also expressed doubt at what Northam might do next. "I believe the governor has to make a decision that's in the best interest of the commonwealth of Virginia," Fairfax told reporters at the capitol.

Asked if he were preparing to possibly assume office as governor, Fairfax replied, "There is a lot of uncertainty right now in our government. But we always have to be ready." Should Northam resign, Fairfax is in line 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.

Fairfax would be only the fifth black politician to serve as governor of a U.S. state, dating back to the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction. Revelation of the yearbook photo and the governor's response to it have drawn calls for his resignation from most elected office holders in Virginia, considered a key swing state in the 2020 presidential race, and many national political figures. At least five Democratic presidential candidates, including U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, both of whom are black, said Northam had lost the moral authority to lead. (Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Gary Robertson in Richmond and Katharine Jackson in Washington Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Trott and James Dalgleish)