Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) defended his ability to lead and heal the state’s racial wounds in his first on-camera interview since the revelation of racist photos that threaten to derail his governorship.
“Right now, Virginia needs someone that can heal. There’s no better person to do that than a doctor,” Northam said in an interview with journalist Gayle King, excerpts of which were aired at the start of CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
“Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere,” Northam said in the interview, which was scheduled to air in full Monday on “CBS This Morning.”
Northam’s comments echo those he made in a Saturday interview with The Washington Post in which he promised to devote the rest of his governorship to advancing racial equity in a place that was at the heart of the Confederacy.
Near the beginning of the CBS interview excerpt in an exchange with King, Northam noted that this year is the 400th anniversary of the first “indentured servants from Africa” arriving in Virginia.
King interjects: “Also known as slavery.”
Northam responds, “Yes. While we have made a lot of progress in Virginia — slavery has ended, schools have been desegregated, we have ended the Jim Crow laws, easier access to voting — it is abundantly clear that we still have a lot of work to do,” Northam told King. “And I really think this week raised a level of awareness in the commonwealth and in this country that we haven’t seen, certainly in my lifetime.”
Northam’s reference to slaves as indentured servants sparked some outrage on social media.
“Virginia deserves a governor that knows the folks who were stolen from their land & brought to present day Virginia on cargo ships in 1619 were not ‘indentured servants’ they were mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, leaders, warriors, elders who were captured & enslaved. SIGH,” tweeted Democratic strategist Symone D. Sanders.
“My God, it just gets worse & worse. Asked about this week in VA, Northam responds by referring to kidnapped, enslaved, & trafficked Africans as ‘indentured servants,’ ” tweeted Qasim Rashid, a Muslim activist who lives in Virginia.
The first Africans brought to Virginia were captured in Angola and brought in a slave ship, but Virginia did not have a formal legal system for slavery in 1619. There appears to have been some ambiguity over their legal status, with some still forced to work for life while others had a path to freedom, according to the National Park Service. Asked to clarify Northam’s remarks, a spokeswoman for the governor pointed to news accounts that said Africans were treated as indentured servants before slave laws were written.
In a prepared statement Monday from a Northam spokeswoman, the governor said, “During a recent event at Fort Monroe I spoke about the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia and referred to them in my remarks as enslaved. A historian advised me that the use of indentured was more historically accurate — the fact is, I’m still learning and committed to getting it right.”
The state is in chaos with controversies engulfing its top three elected officials. Shortly after the revelations about Northam, Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) admitted to wearing blackface as a college student, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) faces calls to resign after two women accused him of sexual assault. Fairfax has said encounters with his accusers in 2000 and 2004 were consensual and has asked the FBI to investigate.
Virginia Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) also acknowledged he was an editor of a 1968 yearbook that featured racial slurs and photos of students in blackface, but he said he was not responsible for the content.
Northam, who is starting to appear publicly after spending nearly a week in seclusion, addressed the scandals facing his fellow elected officials.
Democratic lawmakers at the state and national levels, along with the state Democratic Party, have demanded Fairfax’s resignation, but the lieutenant governor has said he will not step down. Fairfax would become governor if Northam resigns.
Northam said he supports an investigation but stopped short of calling for Fairfax’s resignation.
“If these accusations are determined to be true, I don’t think he’s going to have any other option but to resign,” said Northam, who told King that he has not spoken to Fairfax since the second accuser went public Friday afternoon.
Northam also offered forgiveness to Herring, who after disclosing that he darkened his face when dressing up like rapper Kurtis Blow in college has largely avoided the blizzard of resignation calls that have dogged the governor and lieutenant governor.
“I don’t know what the attorney general was thinking, what his perception was of race, of, of the use of blackface back then,” Northam said to King. “But I can tell you that I am sure, just like me, he has grown. He has served Virginia well, and he and I and Justin, all three of us, have fought for equality.”
The allegations against Fairfax have placed Democrats in an uncomfortable position: They are attempting to push a rising African American star out of office, while a white governor and attorney general accused of racism may remain.
President Trump weighed in Sunday morning, tweeting that “African Americans are very angry at the double standard on full display in Virginia!”
A Washington Post-Schar School poll found Virginians were evenly split on whether Northam should step down, but black voters were more inclined to forgive him. The poll found 58 percent of African Americans did not want Northam to resign, supported his performance as governor and accepted his apology. The polling was conducted before the second sexual assault allegation against Fairfax.
Northam’s attempts to make amends have yet to shift Democratic demands for his resignation. U.S. Reps. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.) reiterated their calls for his resignation in Sunday appearances on “Face the Nation.”
“I understand that he wants, that he’s feeling contrition, that he’s feeling regret,” Wexton said. “But we need somebody who, who cannot only address the wrongs of the past but take Virginia into the future, and I think he’s lost the confidence of the people in order to be able to do that.”
The controversy began when a conservative website earlier this month publicized Northam’s page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook that has a photo of two people — one in blackface and the other in a KKK robe and hood — holding beers.
The governor originally acknowledged appearing in the photo and then backtracked the next day at a nationally televised news conference, when he said he did not believe he was in the photo but did admit to donning blackface at a dance competition in Texas.
The changing explanations were often cited by elected Democrats in their calls for Northam to resign and, according to The Post’s poll, struck most voters as unbelievable.