Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who has faced calls to resign since he admitted to wearing blackface during a dance contest in the 1980s, dropped out of a planned appearance Sunday at a Democratic state lawmaker’s fundraiser during which he would have faced protesters. He cited safety concerns as the reason for the cancellation.
Northam, a Democrat, was scheduled to appear at an event for state Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, who is up for reelection this year, at a community center in Burke, Virginia, a quiet suburban enclave.
But after the Fairfax County NAACP and the state Republican Party assembled protesters outside the center, the governor’s office canceled. His spokeswoman said it was “due to concerns for the safety and security of everyone in attendance.”
Northam has faced calls to step down since February, when his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School personal yearbook page surfaced, featuring a photo of a man wearing blackface standing next to another person in Ku Klux Klan garb.
He initially apologized for appearing in the photo, but he backtracked, saying it was not him. He then acknowledged that he had appeared in blackface that year while portraying Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
Since then, Northam has resisted calls from high-ranking Democrats to step down, and in recent weeks has begun appearing with members of his party at public appearances. Some Democrats also have since backed off their calls for him to leave office, saying they were too hasty in their calls for his resignation.
The fundraiser would have been his second since the blackface revelation. He did one Wednesday for Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, but the event had not been publicized and drew no protesters. And it may be a troubling sign for the state Democratic Party that the governor, who traditionally serves as a fundraising force for state lawmakers, was so coldly received in a critical election year, when the power of the state legislature hangs in the balance. All 140 state legislative seats are up in the fall.
Northam’s scheduled appearance drew about 60 people from the NAACP and another 30 from the state’s Republican Party, with the two groups assembling on either side of an asphalt walkway on a muggy and gray afternoon. Both groups took Northam to task for his admission to wearing blackface, but Republicans also protested his pro-abortion rights stance.
NAACP leaders said they sought to remind Democratic candidates that their association with Northam could alienate black voters.
Kofi Annan, president of the Fairfax County NAACP, said he has been disappointed that prominent Democrats have ceased to call for Northam’s resignation – and he worries that it “normalizes” his behavior.
“We want to send a message to all the Democrats in Virginia that … Governor Northam is not OK with us,” Annan said in an interview.
Philip Thompson, head of the NAACP in Loudoun County, leaned on a cane as a spoke to the crowd.
“No Democrat in this state wins an election without black and minority votes,” he said.
The governor’s office said it extended an offer for Northam to meet with the Fairfax NAACP, but they declined.
While protesters from both sides joined in on chants – “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Northam has got to go!” – they were hardly in lockstep on their reasons to call for him to step down.
Republicans have seized on comments he made during a January radio interview about a bill that would have reduced restrictions on late-term abortions, arguing that he suggested killing live babies. Northam has called the notion that he had endorsed infanticide “disgusting,” but he has refused to clarify his comments. Abortion dominated many of the signs Sunday.
Still, many Democrats showed up to support Marsden, who declined to comment through a spokeswoman.
Alan Krishnan, a Marsden supporter who lives in Fairfax County, said he still gave Northam the benefit of the doubt.
“We are a country where we are innocent until proven guilty,” Krishnan said. “Everybody … threw Northam before the bus, without really investigating what happened.”
The Washington Post’s Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.
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