A strategic decision
The news about the photograph broke on a Friday, as Mr. Northam was traveling to a funeral for a Gold Star family.
“My first response was, someone has Photoshopped this,” he said. “I guess it took a little while for the gravity of the situation to sink in.”
Marcia S. Price, a Black member of the Virginia House of Delegates who had served as a co-chair of Mr. Northam’s campaign for governor, said that when saw the report, she asked her staff to leave her office and broke down in tears.
“The initial reaction was that it hurt,” she said. “It hurt like hell.”
The national condemnations were swift and unequivocal. Democratic presidential candidates, jockeying for the votes of Black Southerners, called for Mr. Northam to resign. Joseph R. Biden Jr. said the governor had “lost all moral authority and should resign immediately.” Local Black lawmakers and activists called for his ouster at a protest at the State Capitol.
By that Saturday, however, Mr. Northam had made clear in public statements and private meetings that he had no intention of leaving office. In the recent interview, the governor said he did not feel it was hypocritical to say he understood the pain he caused many Black Virginians, even as he rejected their calls for him to resign.
“I know myself. I know how I was raised. I know that I got into this job because I want to help people,” Mr. Northam said. “The folks that have been close to me — my friends, my pastor, I can go down that list — they all said, ‘This is not the time for you to step aside.’”
Mr. Northam soon received a stroke of unforeseen fortune, which complicated the moral calculus for the state’s Black elected officials. His lieutenant governor and would-be successor, Justin Fairfax, was accused of sexual assault by two women, though he has repeatedly denied the allegations. Then the state’s third-ranking official, Attorney General Mark Herring, voluntarily admitted that he had worn blackface at a party in 1980.