‘We’re apolitical, and I did not feel that it was a necessary disclosure to make…’
“I have cooperated with Richard Cullen and his team over the course of their investigation, both by making myself available for interviews and by turning over the findings of my private inquiry into the matter,” Northam said in a statement on Wednesday, following the report’s release.
The governor continued to deny that he was one of the two individuals depicted and to claim that his earlier acknowledgment was part of an effort to heal.
“I am not in the racist and offensive photo that appears under my name in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook,” Northam said.
“That being said, I know and understand the events of early February and my response to them have caused hurt for many Virginians and for that, I am sorry,” he added. “I felt it was important to take accountability for the photo’s presence on my page, but rather than providing clarity, I instead deepened pain and confusion.”
The report released Wednesday says two EVMS presidents, including current president Richard Homan, were told about the racist photo while Northam was running for political offices and decided not to make it public.
“We understand President Homan’s reasoning was EVMS should not become involved, or be seen to become involved, in an election as it is a public body and a public institution, and that EVMS did not want there to be any suggestion that it had tried to influence Governor Northam in any respect by calling the photograph to his attention,” the document says.
The Norfolk medical school released the findings from Richmond law firm McGuire Woods in the form of a 36-page report.
In one case, the school’s alumni affairs director noticed the photo while preparing for a reunion and was “shocked” by it, the report says. EVMS officials decided not to put the 1984 yearbook on a table with other years’ editions.
“The EVMS personnel who became aware of the photograph expressed surprise and disappointment in the photograph,” the report says.
At a press conference Wednesday, Homan stood by his decision not to tell Northam or the public about the racist photo earlier.
“I would make the same decision now,” he said. “We’re apolitical, and I did not feel that it was a necessary disclosure to make.” In trying to determine who was in the photo, investigators spoke to five members of the 1984 yearbook staff and others who were students or staff in the 1980s.
“With respect to the photograph on Governor Northam’s personal page, we could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in the Photograph,” the document says.
The Disappearing Scandal
Northam came under scrutiny when a conservative news outlet, Big League Politics, posted the racist image from his section of the 1984 EVMS yearbook.
Hours later, other media outlets confirmed the authenticity of the yearbook page. The governor originally apologized for appearing in the picture, then recanted his comments the next day, Feb. 2, during a nationally televised news conference in Richmond.
Though he vowed at that event that he was neither the person in blackface nor the Ku Klux Klan costume, he did admit to rubbing shoe polish on his cheeks on another occasion to impersonate Michael Jackson for a dance contest.
When prompted, the governor nearly demonstrated his moonwalking moves, stopping only when his wife told him these were “inappropriate circumstances.”
At the same time, Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax became embroiled in rape allegations from two women, and Attorney General Mark Herring, facing the possibility of becoming governor if the top two leaders were forced out, acknowledged that he, too, had worn blackface at a college party.
The departure of all three for violations of the most fundamental tenets of liberal doctrine would have resulted in the Republican leader of the state House of Delegates being elevated to the top office—himself having gotten the majority position after a tightly contested race was resolved by drawing a name from a bowl.
Facing the succession crisis and the political inconvenience, many Democrats in the state and nationwide quickly reassessed their values and downplayed the offenses of all three Democratic leaders. None, thus far, have been held accountable.
Within two months, national media outlets like The New York Times had declared the scandal all but vanished, and powerful Democratic politicians—such as Sen. Mark Warner and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe—began to dial back their earlier calls for resignation.
Governor for Sale
After going underground for a few weeks, Northam rode out a flood of calls for his resignation from both sides of the political aisle. He kept a lower profile over the coming weeks and has since focused his agenda on issues important to many black voters in Virginia.
Groups such as the radical Virginia Black Politicos provided the governor with a list of demands in order to receive their support—to which he happily acquiesced, despite having run as a moderate. Other groups, unrelated to black causes, such as environmental and women’s rights groups also hopped on the bandwagon.
He recently vetoed two mandatory-minimum sentencing bills and successfully pushed lawmakers to end driver’s license suspensions over unpaid court fines. He created a director of diversity, equity and inclusion and has initiated an examination of school curriculums on black history.
“In visits with local leaders across the Commonwealth, I have engaged in frank and necessary dialogue on how I can best utilize the power of the governor’s office to enact meaningful progress on issues of equity and better focus our administration’s efforts for the remainder of my term,” Northam said in his statement Wednesday.
“That conversation will continue, with ensuing action, and I am committed to working to build a better and more equitable Virginia for all who call it home,” he said.
The McGuire Woods report is perhaps the only formal investigation into the photo scandal that nearly led to Northam’s political demise four months ago. The Democratic governor said during his own news conference Feb. 2 that he, too, would be researching the photo, though it’s not clear whether he followed through with that promise.
Apart from his statement on Wednesday, Northam has not commented publicly or released any new information on the origins of the photo to the public. He previously suggested that the picture could have been added to his yearbook page in a layout mix-up.
But McGuire Woods’ review of EVMS yearbooks identified only one such mistake, in the 1986 yearbook, in which it appears the captions under two faculty photos have been switched.
The law firm’s Richard Cullen confirmed during the press conference Wednesday that was the only mistake the firm had found.
The Virginian–Pilot also reported in March that a school-established community advisory board decided to narrow its scope to just analyzing the campus’ culture rather than delving into the yearbooks.
That came to light as The Pilot discovered several of its members have ties to Northam, some having given thousands of dollars to his political campaigns and holding unpaid administration appointments.
Few details about the independent investigation were public before Wednesday, but The Pilot used public records to report that McGuire Woods spent 156 hours in February alone on the inquiry.
The firm dug through yearbooks, distributed letters to persuade potential witnesses to cooperate and conducted interviews.
For its work during that first month, the firm charged EVMS over $76,000.
Liberty Headlines’ Ben Sellers contributed to this report.
©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.