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Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is so far refusing to resign after a racist photo from his medical school yearbook surfaced on Friday. He has admitted to wearing blackface in the past. He says that is not who he is now. Democrats from Richmond to California have demanded that he step down, a sign the party has moved towards a zero tolerance policy for racism, as NPR's Asma Khalid reports.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Within 24 hours when the Northam story broke, nearly every 2020 presidential contender in the Democratic Party had called for the governor of Virginia to resign. At a campaign stop in New Hampshire, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was asked whether there's a role for apologizing in our current politics.
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KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: No one gets everything right their whole lives. But let's be clear about Governor Northam. What he did is vile. It is racist.
KHALID: Times have changed.
MO ELLEITHEE: A lot of the subtle racism that is out there is not seen as being subtle anymore.
KHALID: Mo Elleithee runs the Georgetown University Institute of Politics. He spent two decades working on Democratic campaigns, including eight in Virginia.
ELLEITHEE: There are a lot of people out there who would look at a picture like this one 20 years ago and either ignore it or laugh it off that won't do that anymore.
KHALID: Elleithee says the country has changed culturally. And there are Democrats who think of Northam as an honorable person who made a mistake years ago, but...
ELLEITHEE: They cannot let it slide while also taking on Republicans.
KHALID: There is the issue of moral authority in the era of Donald Trump. Congresswoman Karen Bass is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
KAREN BASS: I think that what the Democratic Party is doing is demonstrating consistency. We called for his resignation - he's a Democratic governor - just as we would a Republican governor.
KHALID: And Bass also points out that black voters mobilized and turned out in huge numbers to support Northam when he ran in 2017.
BASS: Democrats recognize that the reason why, first of all, this governor was elected to begin with is because of the African-American vote. And so the party is holding itself accountable.
KHALID: The Democratic Party has had a gradual shift toward a zero tolerance policy, says Tom Schaller. He's the author of a book called "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without The South." He points out that you see a similar story in how Democrats responded to former Minnesota Senator Al Franken over allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.
TOM SCHALLER: And then he was run out of the party, and that's - shows you the clear moral authority that the Democratic Party is demonstrating in a way that you can't talk about sexism in the workplace if you're not willing to live by the rules that you establish for yourself.
KHALID: Schaller says the Northam story would not have been as controversial in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, a swath of conservative Democrats probably would have rallied to defend him, but those people do not exist anymore. Blue dog Democrats are dinosaurs. The party is no longer the party where Robert Byrd, a former Klan member, can be a senior statesman. But Byrd apologized, and his constituents accepted it. Bass with the Congressional Black Caucus says Northam could have apologized, but it's too late.
BASS: He could have come clean 20 years ago, 30 years ago whenever he entered public life. He could have sat down with African-American clergy and leaders. He could have revealed this past. He would have been forgiven, and he could have moved on.
KHALID: The question for Democrats in 2019 is whether there is any room for redemption and how you can get there. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.