The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Northam controversy threatens to complicate Democrats’ bid to draw sharp contrast with Trump, GOP on race

Demands for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to resign intensified on Feb. 3, after a racist 1984 yearbook photo was released. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

A racist photo in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook entry has become a national political concern for Democrats, threatening to complicate their bid to draw a sharp contrast with President Trump and the Republican Party on race ahead of the 2020 election.

As Northam defied a nationwide chorus of fellow Democrats calling for him to resign on Sunday, party activists and officials struggled to move past the growing controversy.

“Without question, the longer he stays in, the more of a distraction it becomes and that’s not good for Democrats,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and a veteran South Carolina Democrat.

The revelation that Northam’s medical school yearbook page includes a photo of a person in blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan robe comes as perhaps the most diverse Democratic presidential primary in history is kicking off with a collective rebuke of Trump on issues involving race.

The presidential hopefuls are openly campaigning against Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and hard-line border policies as well as on issues such as stopping police violence against African Americans, all of which have opened wide partisan and cultural divides during Trump’s tenure.

The Northam firestorm also came just days ahead of Trump’s State of the Union address — an occasion Democrats are hoping to use to underscore their alternative vision of America.

Stacey Abrams, who came close to being elected the first female African American governor in the nation’s history last year in Georgia, will deliver the Democratic response Tuesday night.

For the moment, Democrats are grappling with a difficult situation involving race, a topic that has often put Republicans on defense.

Democrats argued Sunday that the Northam episode has also highlighted an important difference between the two parties. They argued that their swift and widespread calls for Northam to step down stand in contrast with the way Republicans have handled recent racial controversies in their own ranks.

They pointed to the response Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) received in the GOP after recently wondering aloud to the New York Times about when the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” became offensive. While some Republican lawmakers have called for King to resign, he remains a member of Congress.

“What you saw amongst the Democrats was an immediate response,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Bass said Northam should be impeached if he doesn’t step down. “You didn’t see any hesitation.”

But a Democratic member of Congress, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic, said the Northam revelation may potentially undercut the contrast Democrats are seeking in their messaging if he remains in office.

“It could complicate the message,” this Democrat said.

They added that Republicans have significant racially divisive rhetoric in their party to own up to, which will probably limit the amount Northam’s situation could taint the rest of the party.

Northam’s conduct was a dominant topic of discussion on the Sunday morning news shows. In one interview, Northam’s predecessor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, said he winced during Northam’s Saturday news conference, a widely panned appearance in which Northam insisted he was not in the photo, reversing what he said the day before. Northam said he had once put dark shoe polish on his face to impersonate Michael Jackson as part of a dance contest in the 1980s, an admission that brought additional condemnation.

“Once that picture with the blackface and the Klansman came out, there is no way you can continue to be the governor of the commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe, a potential presidential candidate, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Other current and potential Democratic presidential hopefuls — including Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Cory Booker (N.J.,), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro; and former vice president Joe Biden — called for Northam’s resignation.

Many of them have built platforms around unity and the need to dig out racial injustices from the economy, criminal justice system and other aspects of American society.

In the early stage of her campaign, Harris has positioned herself as a unifying force, one willing to combat “systemic racism” that exists in this country. She announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and molded her logo and slogan color scheme as an homage to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president in a major party.

“I’m running to fight for an America where no mother or father has to teach their young son that people may stop him, arrest him, chase him or kill him because of his race,” Harris said in her launch speech.

Booker’s campaign launch video included footage of civil rights marches, along with the words “the only way we can make change is when people come together.” The video also included Booker telling the story of his parents’ fight against housing discrimination, which ended with white lawyers standing up to real estate agents to allow them to live there.

“I believe that we can build a country,” Booker says in the video, “where our criminal justice system keeps us safe, instead of shuffling more children into cages and coffins.”

When it comes to Northam, Republicans have also broadly condemned his conduct. Trump tweeted that his offense was “unforgivable.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tweeted that Northam’s “staying in office only poisons efforts to grow together as one nation” that and “he should resign.”

McCarthy took a different approach when it came to King, stripping him of his committee assignments but not calling on him to resign. King has a long history of incendiary rhetoric, including a suggestion that immigrants have calves the size of “cantaloupes” from carrying drugs.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) pushed back Sunday against comments from Democrats contrasting the way they responded to Northam with the way the GOP dealt with King.

“Politically, when you’re in one of these situations, you need to handle your mess and not point out, ‘well, but the other guys would have done worse or have done worse.’ I don’t see how that makes you look good,” Cole said.

As Democrats deal with the fallout from the photo on Northam’s yearbook page, a long-circulated picture of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is getting renewed attention as some Democrats pointed to it as evidence that GOP leaders have not been held to account for past offensive statements or appearances. In the picture, McConnell is seen posing in front of a Confederate flag with another man.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said “the picture is apparently from a Sons of Confederate Veterans event 30 years ago or so.” Stewart defended McConnell’s civil rights record, pointing to a 2015 statement where he called the flag a “painful reminder of racial oppression to many,” and argued that “the time for a state to fly it has long since passed.”

Stewart did not provide more information about why McConnell was at the event.

Trump received widespread criticism when he said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. But top Republicans did not call on him to resign. Then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Trump “messed up.” McConnell said “there are no good neo-Nazis.”

No resignations from the Trump administration followed. The same was true when Trump called the widespread removal of Confederate statues “sad” and “so foolish” a few days later.

Democrats are hoping the increasing pressure they are applying on Northam to step aside will yield a different outcome.

“For the good of the larger cause, he should step aside,” Cobb-Hunter said.