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Calls for Virginia governor’s resignation grow

Two days after a racist yearbook photo emerged, Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Democratic governor, refuses to resign even as members of his own party demand he step down. In his press conference on Saturday, Northam denied being in the photo. Judith Browne Dianis of Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization and Richmond- based radio host Roben Farzad join Megan Thompson for discussion.

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  • Megan Thompson:

    For perspective and analysis about Virginia's governor, his comments and the issues there, we turn now to Judith Browne Dianis in Washington D.C. She's executive director of Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization, and Roben Farzad, host of the radio program and NPR podcast, "Full Disclosure." He joins us from Richmond, Virginia. Roben can you just get us up to speed? You're down in the Virginia State Capitol. What are people saying?

  • Roben Farzad:

    It's just been such a surreal three days here in Richmond. I mean, you start Friday morning, this is the beloved popular Democratic governor of Virginia and then the news drops that a right-wing website gets its mitts on these med school photos of him either in blackface or in a klan outfit.

    And so what you're looking at right now is a person who in the course of 36 hours, his career is kind of self immolated and people are just waiting for the final resignation.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Judith, I want to get your take on that press conference yesterday. I mean you saw it, what were you thinking?

  • Judith Browne Dianis:

    I was appalled. I could not believe. First, we had the apology on Friday and then the next day, I mean, for an hour he talked about, it wasn't him. Then he said he didn't recall whether or not it was him. He called college friends and they said they don't remember him ever doing that. And so it wasn't a full out denial. And while he was apologizing, it just did not seem real.

    And so I think there that the call for his resignation is real, that people do not believe that he can lead the state of Virginia, and that he can build an inclusive democracy in Virginia, for the new Virginia that we are seeing, has has moved into, over the past few years.

  • Megan Thompson:

    You are one of the people who is calling for him to step down. He says he wants the chance to make amends. What do you say?

  • Judith Browne Dianis:

    You know, I believe that people do come along. In fact, when you do racial justice and civil rights work, that is part of what our mission is, to bring this country along. But I don't think that means that he should be the governor of the state of Virginia. We are talking about the capital of the Confederacy. We are talking about a state where a majority of black voters voted for him and now they are feeling betrayed. So he needs to step down.

  • Megan Thompson:

    I wanted to ask you a little bit more about that. I mean this did come as a surprise. He did enjoy support in the African-American community. Can you just talk a little bit about what you're hearing from the community today?

  • Judith Browne Dianis:

    You know Virginia's still remains one of three states that disenfranchises people with felony convictions for a lifetime and that is a vestige of slavery. It was passed in the late eighteen hundreds and so African-Americans in the state of Virginia understand what racism looks like and that it's not just about the blackface.

    The blackface is a symbol of white supremacy that plays out in all of our structures and systems and institutions and so black voters in black communities, for example, the New Virginia Majority found that 90 per cent of black women in predominantly black communities voted for Northam, 81 percent of black men voted for him. So people are feeling betrayed. They don't think that he can stand with them and they don't think that he can lead them into the future that they want to see in Virginia.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Roben, this scandal comes amidst a really a changing political landscape in Virginia. Can you just describe that for us?

  • Roben Farzad:

    So yeah, I mean it is fascinating. It was historically a red state here in Richmond, it was the capitol of the Confederacy. I mean, a studio and a swath of town that was you know, burned down by the Confederate troops as the Union troops advanced in 1865 and Richmond fell. But right now what you have is a place where obviously certain things like blackface like the n-word remain forbidden and not tolerated in the entire discourse or for example things that happen in Charlottesville last year but then other kind of coded racial microaggression — you see Monument Avenue here with all the Confederate statues, you see Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor who just a week before Black History Month in overseeing the Virginia state Senate had to step up and walk away as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were honored by the Virginia Senate.

    There's still a battle for the soul of a very changing state and there are like three or four Virginias within one Virginia. If you go to northern Virginia it is solidly blue, if you come here to Richmond, it had just elected its first democratic congress person in Abigail Spanberger, I think in 45 years. If you go to South Virginia, southwest Virginia, it resembles other states in Dixie. And I think that this is indicative of some of the tensions that over time you have people that just wanted to keep the uncomfortable equilibrium together, don't rock the boat. But when things like this happen it really exposes how unresolved all of this is.

  • Megan Thompson:

    If Northam does step down who would take over?

  • Roben Farzad:

    Justin Fairfax, his lieutenant governor and it's what's interesting with this is, he has been most kind of subdued in terms of calling for his resignation. There's there's an element of him wanting to be magnanimous about it. People kind of view it as inevitable. But because of Virginia's peculiar consecutive term limits for governor, he could potentially be governor, he could serve out the rest of Northam's three-year-term and then run for his own four years.

    And that has many people in the party, I mean I know it sounds mercenary, really excited but all sorts of people in terms of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, AOC who want to come into town ahead of 2020 — and this is a brutally important swing district in a swing state — want to make sure that there isn't an albatross that they have to deal with, the kind of a lame duck, a person who is radioactive who you don't want to be seen with.

  • Megan Thompson:

    All right. Roben Farzad host of the radio program and NPR podcast 'Full Disclosure.' And Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • Judith Browne Dianis:

    Thank you.

  • Roben Farzad:

    Thank you Megan.

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