Blackface photo investigation in Virginia hits a dead end
NORFOLK, Va. -- The mystery of whether Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was in the racist yearbook photo that nearly destroyed his career remains unsolved.
A monthslong 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 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," the 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 Virginia politics or Northam, who managed to fend off demands for his resignation and survive the uproar. Many of the Democrats who had called on him to step down have signaled a willingness to work with him.
Northam has also been striving to make amends with black leaders, winning their praise such moves as ending the suspension of driver's licenses for unpaid fines and ordering a review of how schools teach the nation'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."
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.
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. 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.
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 the governor was "in a state of shock" when the photo surfaced.
The governor was all but invisible when the scandal first broke but has gradually resumed his regular public schedule for the most part. His political opponents still use the incident against him.
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.
Suderman reported from Richmond, Virginia.