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Ralph Northam aimed to stem resignation calls. He failed

CNN logo CNN 2/3/2019 By Dan Merica, CNN
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, pauses during a news conference in the Governors Mansion at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Northam is under fire for a racial photo that appeared in his college yearbook. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) © Steve Helber/AP Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, pauses during a news conference in the Governors Mansion at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Northam is under fire for a racial photo that appeared in his college yearbook. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

If Ralph Northam hoped to use his extraordinary press conference on Saturday to convince top Virginia Democrats to side with him as others call for his swift resignation, the governor failed.

Stunningly.

Northam's hour-long news conference about a racist photo showing one person dressed in blackface and another in the Ku Klux Klan's signature white hood and robes in his medical school yearbook page was an inflection point in the saga that now drags into its third day. The bizarre press conference at the governor's mansion featured denials that he ever dressed up in a KKK robe and hood, pledges that he was never drunk enough to forget a situation like that and a revelation that Northam once did darken his face to resemble Michael Jackson during a dance contest in 1984.

"I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo," Northam said. "This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam."

But the press conference raised more questions than it answered, including how Northam could admit he was in the photo on Friday before taking it all back on Saturday. And why he thought it would help to admit he had once dressed up in blackface as a way to resolve questions about the yearbook photo that features someone in blackface.

What didn't come out of the press conference, however, was what the embattled governor needed most: The reaffirmation of support from some of the biggest names in Virginia's Democratic circles.

Going into the press conference, Virginia's two Democratic senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, Rep. Bobby Scott, Attorney General Mark Herring and former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder all condemned the photo in respective statements but did not outright call on Northam to step aside.

That restraint was no more after Northam's press conference.

In a major move, Kaine, Warner and Scott released a joint statement on Saturday night that directly called on Northam to resign.

"After we watched his press conference today, we called Governor Northam to tell him that we no longer believe he can effectively serve as Governor of Virginia and that he must resign, the three said. "He should step down and allow the Commonwealth to begin healing."

The statement was seen by top Virginia Democrats as a direct denunciation of Northam's performance at the press conference, in part, because it came after the three had been speaking with Northam and privately encouraging him to step down, according to a Democrat with direct knowledge of the talks.

Those private deliberations are part of why they had they resisted to publicly ask for his resignation as other prominent Virginia Democrats have. But that patience ended Saturday night.

The Democrat said the trio was willing to hold off on the statement if Northam told them he was willing to step down Saturday night or Sunday. Northam indicated that he would not, so they publicly called him out.

Kaine, Warne and Scott were not the only once-reserved Virginia Democrats to call for Northam's resignation after watching his press conference.

"It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down," Herring said.

And Doug Wilder, Virginia's first African-American governor and the nation's first popularly elected black governor, reserved judgment until the press conference and released a tepid statement on the issue beforehand. That changed after the event and Wilder directly called for his resignation after the press conference.

"I stated, earlier, that Gov. Northam's continuing in office was his choice to make. It is difficult for anyone who watched the press conference today to conclude that he has any other choice ... but to resign," Wilder said.

Northam continued to bleed support even as he spoke during the press conference.

As the governor took questions, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus -- a group of African-American lawmakers who had called for Northam's resignation on Friday -- reaffirmed their statement.

"In light of his public admission and apology for his decision to appear in the photo, he has irrevocably lost the faith and trust of the people he was elected to serve," the caucus said. "Changing his public story today now casts further doubt on his ability to regain that trust."

Virginia Democrats, hours after the press conference, remained in a state of shock, unsure of what comes next for the governor who called for an "honest conversation" on race as a way to move forward as he continues to serve as governor.

A spokeswoman for Northam did not respond to questions about how the governor intends to begin that conversation on Sunday and it is unclear what the governor's next move will be.

What is clear, however, is that the cascade of excoriating statements will continue as long as Northam remains in office.

"As painful as yesterday was for Virginia, I hoped that today would bring healing, truth and transformation. I pray Sunday will be that day," said Tom Perriello, the former congressman who ran against Northam in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2017.

"It gives me no pleasure to say that what we're seeing is the manifestation of white male entitlement," Perriello continued. "I believe that, together, we can choose a better path."

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