WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior Democrats on Sunday accused embattled Virginia Governor Ralph Northam of being dishonest and urged him to resign after he backtracked from an earlier admission that he appeared in racist garb in a yearbook photo.
Northam, a Democrat trying to resist mounting pressure from his party to step down, on Saturday walked back his admission that he was one of two people shown in the photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook, one person in blackface standing next to another in a Ku Klux Klan costume.
Northam, who took office a year ago, had admitted on Friday he was in the photo from the 1980s.
Even as he denied it on Saturday, he admitted to dressing up in blackface to imitate the late pop star Michael Jackson in a dance contest around the same time.
“He is being completely dishonest and disingenuous,” Democratic U.S. Representative Karen Bass said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I think given the overall climate around race in this country, especially over the last two years, it’s completely unacceptable,” said Bass, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.
She also took issue with Northam’s claim that wearing blackface was commonplace in 1984.
“He’s basically saying that he participated in it and especially when he described the time that he did the Michael Jackson impression,” said Bass. “He even acted at the press conference like he was willing to moon walk until his wife stopped him, which shows that he still does not understand the seriousness of his actions.”
Bass’ sentiment was echoed by Donald McEachin, a black House member from Virginia, who said he had spoken to Northam on Friday and that the governor was apologetic.
“So I was really surprised when the next day he comes out and says it’s not him,” McEachin, a Democrat, also said on “Meet the Press.” “That was quite a surprise to me.”
Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who has called for Northam to resign, said he believed he would do so.
“It doesn’t matter whether he was in that photo or not in the photo at this point. We have to close that chapter,” McAuliffe said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“And if Ralph is watching this today, I know how much he loves this Commonwealth of Virginia. And you have got to make the right decision. You have got to make the right moral decision.”
Democratic party strategists worry that the controversy could hurt the party’s chances in the 2020 presidential election. Virginia is a competitive state that leans Democratic.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat weighing a 2020 presidential run, has also urged Northam to step down.
Other prominent Democrats – including 2020 presidential candidates Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Cory Booker, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Julian Castro, a former top U.S. housing official – have been calling on Northam to resign since Friday.
Northam, a 59-year-old pediatric neurologist and Army veteran, graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1984.
Blackface dates back to minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries that featured white performers portraying African Americans, often in a degrading manner, and it is considered to be racist and offensive.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Daniel Wallis)