Mystery of racist photo in governor’s yearbook left unsolved

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s rocky progress to redemption didn’t get much of a boost Wednesday after a monthslong investigation failed to determine whether he appears in a racist yearbook picture that almost destroyed his political career.

A law firm hired by Eastern Virginia Medical School said it couldn’t say whether Northam is in a picture published in 1984 of a man in blackface next to someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

Northam has long denied he was in the picture. The lack of an official exoneration is unlikely to have much effect on his situation. The governor and the state’s top two other Democrats have been in a kind of limbo since they survived a wave of scandals in early February that almost forced all three from office.

The governor’s scandal was first to hit, when his decades-old medical school yearbook drew attention in early February.

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The Democrat initially acknowledged he was in the photo and apologized, then reversed course the next day, saying he was not in it. But he acknowledged he once wore blackface decades ago to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest.

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 Richard Cullen, an attorney at McGuireWoods, who led the investigation.

Investigators said 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.

In interviews with investigators, Northam appeared to partly blame his staff and advisers for the conflicting messaging after the photo first surfaced.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t think through it. I was rushed to … I shouldn’t use the term raising a gun to my head, but they were saying we need to do it quickly,” Northam said, according to the report.

In a statement Wednesday, Northam, a 59-year-old pediatric neurologist, repeated that he’s not in the photo and apologized again to Virginians, admitting his handling of the episode “deepened pain and confusion.”

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 step down.

But many of the Democrats who had called on him to quit have signaled a willingness to work with Northam, who has scored major legislative wins both before and after the scandal broke. That includes expanding Medicaid and getting long-sought funding through tax increases and other means to enlarge Interstate 81.

Northam has also sought to make amends with black leaders, winning their praise for such moves as ending the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and ordering a review of how schools teach America’s racial history.

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.”

But the strains still show. Northam recently canceled a political fundraiser where protesters gathered and withdrew as a commencement speaker at his alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute.

The picture started a wave of scandals that quickly enveloped Northam’s two potential successors, both Democrats. 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. The Democratic Party of Virginia recently rejected a bid by Fairfax to sponsor a table at the party’s biggest fundraising dinner of the year. And Herring, who had previously announced a run for governor in 2021, faces an uncertain political future.

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.

On Wednesday, GOP House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert panned the investigation, saying the report didn’t prove Northam isn’t in the picture. He also noted that according to the report, the medical school’s leaders knew about the picture before it became public and said nothing.

“It certainly appears that there was an effort to avoid public disclosure of such a racist photograph on the yearbook page of the most prominent alumni in school history,” Gilbert said.

The report’s inconclusive findings were met with shrugs by some Virginians. People at a mall near the medical school said there are more important concerns, such as jobs.

“So much has been overblown of this that we’re kind of losing the big picture,” said Jacob Pricenski, 20, a community college student from Suffolk who also works at a store in the mall. “I care very little about the personal life of my politicians. I care more about what they do for me and the people around me.”

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Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia.

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