As calls for the resignation of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam continued Sunday, people who know him said they are inclined to give him some latitude despite the controversy over whether he appeared in a racist yearbook photo and admission that he once darkened his face with shoe polish to attend a dance contest.
“That was not good,” said Charles Bell, a deacon who was at First Baptist Church in Capeville, Virginia, where Northam is a member of the congregation. Still, he said, “How many of us are not guilty of doing something we are ashamed of?”
First Baptist Rev. Kelvin Jones, whom Northam considers a mentor, said the governor “has the right to prove himself.”
"I think that he has the right to serve until he feels he’s no longer capable of doing the job,” said Jones, who delivered the invocation at Northam’s inauguration. “And he has to come up with those reasons as to why. Whether it be the lack of support, whether he just feels ineffective, or whatever."
Northam burst into the national news Friday after web site Big League Politics published the 1984 yearbook photo that was later verified by The Washington Post. It depicts one person wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe and another in blackface.
The governor first apologized and said he was one of the people in the photo, although he didn’t say which one. Later, he reversed himself and said he didn’t think he was in the "disgusting, offensive, racist" picture. At the same time Saturday, he told reporters about darkening his face when he dressed as Michael Jackson in a 1980s for a dance contest.
Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said on Sunday that Northam did not exhibit racist behaviors or views when he was his lieutenant governor. Still, McAuliffe said Northam should step down.
"It doesn't matter whether he was in the photo or not in the photo at this point," McAuliffe said on CNN's "State of the Union." "We have to close that chapter. It is heartbreaking, but Virginia has to move forward."
At Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, where Northam graduated in 1984 and the yearbook originated, the campus was quiet on Sunday with a few groups of people wandering the grounds.
Naved Jafri, a 1996 graduate reached by phone, said he found the episode “shocking.”
Jafri, who is a practicing OB-GYN in Hampton, Virginia, said he and fellow alumni have always known the Norfolk school as community-based, open to diversity and nontraditional students. Before the news of the racist photo, Jafri and fellow graduates felt proud to call Northam an alumnus who'd reached the highest political office in the commonwealth.
Jafri said he is alarmed that a photo of that nature even made it into a school-published yearbook at all, whether or not it features or was selected by Northam. Jafri said he remembers picking out photos for his page during his senior year, but he doesn’t remember a final editing process for seniors to see their pages before publication.
“It was just kind of something that showed up at the end of the year,” Jafri explained.
Jafri believes there should be an investigation of the yearbook's production in 1984 and who allowed the photo to publish. “I think there should be accountability,” he said.
The yearbook identifies Pam Kopelove as the editor, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Kopelove did not respond to a message left by USA TODAY seeking comment.
Before the governor's office
Despite spending more than a decade in public office, Northam had a relatively low profile before last week. He spent six years as a state senator and then three as lieutenant governor before becoming governor in January 2018.
Northam grew up on Virginia's rural Eastern Shore on a small farm outside Onancock, a town of around 1,200. The governor's father was a judge and his mother was a nurse. Northam recently spoke about his childhood during a visit to First Baptist Church. He told the congregation about being a student during school desegregation in 1971. He was in sixth grade at the time.
While many white families chose to send their children to private school, Northam's parents kept their sons in public schools.
He graduated from Onancock High School in 1977. Northam was a good student and as a teenager always held down a job, his father, retired Circuit Judge Wescott B. Northam, recalled in previous interviews – including as a stock boy at the Meatland grocery store, driving a tractor on a farm, and as a boatmate.
During college, he took a summer job as a boat captain, taking workers back and forth from Onancock to Tangier. After high school, Northam attended Virginia Military Institute, where he was a battalion commander his senior year and served as president of the honor court.
He was one of the first VMI graduates accepted into Eastern Virginia Medical School. He served eight years active duty in the U.S. Army, including treating wounded soldiers at a hospital in Germany during Operation Desert Storm. More recently, Northam worked as a pediatric neurologist in Norfolk.
In the governor's race in 2017, Northam won over Republican Ed Gillespie by a wide margin, garnering nearly 54 percent of the vote statewide.
Having a compass
In Northam's inaugural address, he focused on the importance of having a compass – both literally, in his experiences boating on the Chesapeake Bay, and metaphorically, meaning a sense of moral uprightness.
He credited his father and his mother, who died in 2009, with instilling in him the values that still guide him. Of his mother, a nurse who also volunteered with hospice and taught children who were learning English as a second language to read, Northam said: "She taught me that, no matter who we are or where we come from, we are all equal in the beginning – and in the end."
Still, Northam said the greatest lesson he learned from his parents he learned by watching how they conducted themselves in the community.
"Their humble and steady service to the people around them taught me what strength looks like. It taught me that you don’t have to be loud to lead," he said.
At First Baptist Church on Sunday, the pastor Northam considers a mentor, suggested the governor could use this weekend's events for further progress.
"He has now the opportunity to even be more effective in the sense that he knows what that hurt caused people," Jones said. "But sometimes, I’ve come to learn that we aren’t afforded opportunities to make right on what are our wrongs. Because we live in a society that discards you once you’re wrong."
Jones, who was said to have attended Northam’s press conference Saturday, said that he is "of course," still welcome at his church.
"I can be your friend and not condone your behavior," the pastor said. “My friendship, nor my relationship with him, is going to be predicated on a photo from 34 years ago. Because that would not be the person I know. I know Ralph Northam, the doctor that has taken care of people."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pastor: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam 'has to right to prove himself'