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Former Virginia Gov. McAuliffe Calls For Sitting Gov. Northam To Step Down


We're going to start the program with the ongoing controversy surrounding Virginia's Democratic Governor Ralph Northam. Political leaders from across the country have called upon him to resign after a racist photo surfaced Friday from his 1984 medical school yearbook. At first, Northam acknowledged being in the picture which shows a man in blackface standing next to another person in a Klansman costume, and he apologized. Then he said that, upon reflection, he was not the person in the photo, but admitted another incident when he did use blackface to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest. Among the prominent Democrats calling on Northam to step aside is his predecessor, former Governor Terry McAuliffe. And Governor McAuliffe is with us now. Governor, thanks so much for talking to us.

TERRY MCAULIFFE: Thank you, Michel. Good evening.

MARTIN: You were among the first to call on Governor Northam, who was also your lieutenant governor, and I presume your friend, to resign. That was even before he offered his explanation. But after you heard it, you say he still should step down. What makes his position so untenable in your view?

MCAULIFFE: Well, first, we are very, very good friends. We've worked very closely together. We had a great four years. We moved ahead on civil rights. He stood by me when I restored more (unintelligible) rights than any governor in American history and was sued by the Republicans. But, Michel, Friday, when that picture came out and when I first saw it, I said there's no way that that's Ralph in that picture. I couldn't - I was speechless. I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut. It was so offensive. And I knew it wasn't him. And then, as you know, at about 7 or 8 o'clock at night, he came out and said that he was one of the two people in the photo.

And at that point, to me, it was just untenable. You've lost the moral authority to lead. And then the next day, he came out and now said he wasn't. So I've never quite seen a process like this before. I can tell you, Michel, if that painting - that picture had been up, I would have said within seconds that's not me in the picture. It's not something you forget to be standing there with a blackface on and someone with a Ku Klux Klan robes on.

So we've got to move forward. Our state is in a very good position. We got to continue to go. But he's just going to have an impossible task now when everybody in the state has called for him to resign. We're in the middle of legislative session. Tuesday is a big day. The bills go back and forth. This is the time that the governor has to be leaning in. You have the Black Caucus who is adamant that he step down. They are going to give four speeches tomorrow on the capitol's floor asking him to step down. And Ralph is a decent, moral human being. He may have made a mistake 35 years, whatever it is, it's not clear. But the point is he knows what's in the best interests of Virginia.

MARTIN: Before these photos emerged, Governor Northam stepped into another controversy with comments about a bill in the Virginia legislature that would have loosened restrictions on third-trimester abortions. Anti-abortion activists and politicians all over the country reacted furiously to this, saying that he was endorsing infanticide. Is part of the reason that you're telling him he has to go is that he's proven himself to be incompetent as a standard bearer for Democrats trying to hold on to the middle ground in a swing state?

MCAULIFFE: No, I'm not. And, in fact, he's done a very good job getting Medicaid expansion done last year. But I can't really explain. There is no Democrat that I know that I have ever met who supports infanticide, not one. That's a pretty clear, easy thing to answer - did not support that bill. I don't know why it got to where it was, and the explanation was horrifying. So I - it's the two things together. But my whole issue was the issue of the photo, the Ku Klux Klanman and the individual with the blackface on that is so abhorrent. There's no way I could step into the shoes of those individuals who are so offended, members of the African-American community - I can't.

But I clearly understand the pain that this has caused so many people. And I'm just trying to find a way that we can move forward. We just had Charlottesville. We're coming up on the two-year anniversary, Michel, where a thousand people - white supremacists, neo-Nazis came into our state while I was governor. We worked hard. I told them to get the hell out of Virginia. You know, we've had to overcome a horrible history.

MARTIN: We only have a less than a minute left, so I just wanted to ask about you. I understand that you're considering a presidential run yourself, which is already a very crowded field. Are you still considering this? And in the 40 seconds we have left, what are the factors that weigh upon your decision-making here?

MCAULIFFE: Sure. I've said I'll make a decision by March 31. We did have - the last four years, making investments in education, took a large deficit, created a huge surplus, hundreds of thousands of new jobs. We built a new open and welcoming dynamic state. We need a president who, first of all, tells the truth, who is compassionate, who has empathy. This is what we did in Virginia. That's why I think governors, you know, we build roads, clean roads. Next president has to be someone who's laying out a practical, actionable agenda to move things forward.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. That's the former governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe. Governor, thanks so much for talking with us.

MCAULIFFE: Thanks, Michel. You bet. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.