Virginia in tumult as top Democrats engulfed in controversy

Virginia in tumult as top Democrats engulfed in controversy
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All three of Virginia’s statewide elected leaders are fighting to save their political lives in the midst of a rapidly evolving series of crises that threatens both their own survival and their party’s electoral chances later this year.

In a state saddled by racial tensions after centuries of slavery and generations of Jim Crow, both Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark Herring (D) face calls for their resignations after admitting they donned blackface in the 1980s.

Separately, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who is black, on Wednesday faced detailed allegations of sexual assault from 2004.


The tempest began with a racist photograph that appeared on Northam’s medical school yearbook page. Northam initially apologized, then denied he was in the photograph, while at the same time acknowledging that he wore blackface to a dance contest for which he dressed up as Michael Jackson.

By Monday, the storm swirled around Fairfax, who denied allegations he sexually assaulted a woman at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. A Stanford fellow on Wednesday offered a detailed account of an encounter she said was nonconsensual, deepening the controversy for Fairfax.

Also on Wednesday, Herring admitted that, like Northam, he too had worn blackface while in college, when he dressed up as a rapper for a party.

The three Democrats, elected together in 2017, showed little of the unity that marked their ascension to power. Fairfax insinuated that the allegations against him had been Northam’s effort to clear his own name, an accusation Northam’s team firmly denied. Herring found himself in the uncomfortable — and possibly untenable — position of admitting to the same behavior for which he had called on Northam to resign.

Now, as the legislature enters crucial budget negotiations and Democrats prepare for an attack on narrow Republican majorities in the House of Delegates and state Senate in November’s elections, the party appears fractured, leaderless and bereft.

Northam has appeared to dig in, in an effort to save his governorship — and his reputation. The governor initially admitted he appeared in a photograph of a man in blackface and another man in full Ku Klux Klan hood and robe, before recanting at a press conference Saturday. But, he acknowledged, he had worn blackface at the later event.

Amid near-universal calls that he step down from Democrats and Republicans, enemies and allies alike, Northam declined a reporter’s request to do the moonwalk.

“He’s not going to resign,” one Democrat close to Northam told The Hill, requesting anonymity to describe internal discussions. “He was certainly open to something changing that decision, but he’s still there.”

Northam has spent the last several days calling community leaders, especially those who head African-American groups, seeking support and forgiveness.

“He’s going to keep reaching out to African-American groups and others,” the person close to Northam said.

Some Democrats remained skeptical of Northam’s shifting explanations. Rep. A. Donald McEachinAston (Donale) Donald McEachinHouse Democrats seek to codify environmental inequality mapping tool  House coronavirus bill aims to prevent utility shutoffs OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Oil prices jump amid partial reopenings | Bill aims to block fossil fuel firms from coronavirus aid | Tribes to receive some coronavirus aid after court battle MORE (D-Va.), who served with Northam in the state legislature, on Wednesday reiterated his call for Northam to step down.


“Come on. Who would forget that they had a Klan suit on or who would forget they had blackface? In fact, he doesn't forget that he had blackface, because he remembers the Michael Jackson piece,” McEachin told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Fairfax, the man who would succeed Northam if the governor quits early, has spent the last several days adamantly denying accusations from a Scripps College professor and fellow at Stanford who said the lieutenant governor — then a political operative — assaulted her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

In a statement Wednesday, the professor, Vanessa Tyson, said the two had kissed, but that the situation “quickly turned into a sexual assault."

“Mr. Fairfax put his hand behind my neck and forcefully pushed my head towards his crotch,” Tyson said in a statement released by her lawyers. Tyson said Fairfax forced her “to perform oral sex on him. I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual.”

Tyson has retained the same law firm, Katz, Marshall & Banks, that represented Christine Blasey Ford during her testimony to Congress in which she alleged Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughSupreme Court rules immigrants who fear torture can appeal deportations in court It wasn't just religious liberty that Chief Justice Roberts strangled Supreme Court denies California church's challenge to state restrictions MORE assaulted her in high school. Kavanaugh denied those allegations and was confirmed.

Fairfax on Wednesday released his own statement, calling the encounter consensual and saying he and Tyson had communicated cordially in the time after the Democratic convention.

“At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter nor doing the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past fifteen years,” Fairfax said. “She in no way indicated that anything that had happened between us made her uncomfortable.”

Fewer political leaders have called on Fairfax to resign, though that is likely to change given Tyson’s detailed description of the incident.  

In a statement Tuesday, before Tyson told her story, the Democratic Party of Virginia said: “All allegations of sexual assault deserve to be taken with profound gravity. We will continue to evaluate the situation regarding Lt. Gov. Fairfax.” 

Had both Northam and Fairfax resigned, the governorship would have fallen to Herring — who called an emergency meeting with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday morning to disclose the fact that he had also dressed in blackface while in college.

“In 1980, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college, some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song,” Herring said in a statement. “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it. But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes — and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others — we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup.”

“This was a onetime occurrence and I accept full responsibility for my conduct,” Herring said. “That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others.”

Virginia members of Congress met Wednesday on the House floor, where they discussed Herring’s admission without coming to a collective decision.

“All of this is breaking news. We’re all trying to figure out who did what when, and what the consequences are,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) told The Hill. “The attorney general would not talk about blackface when he was 20 if not for what happened last week” with Northam.

The chaos at the top of Virginia’s usually genteel political power structure has left Democrats and Republicans reeling in the middle of a chaotic week in Richmond, as the legislature begins to wrap up some of its policy work and turn to the state budget.

House Speaker Kirk Cox (R) said earlier this week he did not see a justification to begin impeachment proceedings against Northam, though Cox has called on the governor to resign.

In the unlikely event all three Democrats resign, the governorship would fall to Cox, a Republican.

Cox assumed the Speakership a year ago, after Republicans held on to their House majority by a single seat. The election for that seat ended in a tie; Del. David Yancey (R) kept his job only after a state official broke a tie by pulling Yancey’s name out of a bowl.

Making matters even more complicated, a federal district court ruled last month that district lines drawn by Republicans earlier this decade violated federal law by improperly diluting the political power of African-American voters. The court adopted new district lines covering 11 seats — including Cox’s district, south of Richmond.

Republicans have pledged to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court. If the new lines hold up, Cox’s district would become more heavily Democratic, putting his own job at risk in the 2019 legislative elections when Democrats believe they have the targets necessary to win back control of the Old Dominion.

Some Democrats worried that the scandals enveloping their executive officeholders may have an electoral impact — if not in the minds of voters, then at least on the party’s efforts to raise money.

“Democrats were counting on a governor on the campaign trail, and more importantly a governor raising significant money for the coordinated campaign, neither of which is likely to happen right now,” said one Democratic strategist with deep ties to Virginia. “This matters tremendously to the public’s confidence in leadership of state government. People will overhead the long-term electoral consequences.”

— Scott Wong and Cristina Marcos contributed.