Virginia Democrats try to thread the needle on crisis

  • Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, right, gives a high five to a page as he prepares for the start of the Senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. — Confronted with a triple threat to the party’s top ranks, Virginia Democrats are trying to thread the needle, demanding anew that Gov. Ralph Northam resign but giving the benefit of the doubt — for the time being — to the lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Key Democratic groups began weighing in late Thursday after the widening crisis rendered them practically speechless for a day. Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have admitted wearing blackface as young men in the 1980s, while Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is accused of sexually assaulting a woman 15 years ago, an allegation he denies.

“We’ll have our say; I’m confident in the truth,” Fairfax said Friday when asked what message he had for Virginia. He made the remarks to journalists lining a Capitol hallway as he went to preside over the state Senate.

The previous night, the Virginia legislature’s Black Caucus issued a statement acknowledging the seriousness of all three controversies but added: “Our responses to each, however, must be based on their individual facts and circumstances.”

Although the Democratic Party has taken almost a zero-tolerance approach to misconduct among its members in this #MeToo era, a housecleaning in Virginia could be costly: If all three Democrats resigned, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would become governor.

In a positive sign for Northam, a lawmaker from Virginia’s Democratic-leaning D.C. suburbs said Friday he won’t call on the besieged governor to resign.

“I will not request the Governor’s resignation,” State Sen. Chap Petersen, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Nor will I request any other official to resign until it is obvious that they have committed a crime in office or their ability to serve is irredeemably compromised.”

However, other Democrats maintained their condemnation of Northam. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a 2020 presidential hopeful, said Friday that he still thinks Northam should step down.

“I think it dredges up very hurtful, painful things from the past. … I think he’s betrayed the public trust, and he should resign,” Booker said during an appearance in Iowa.

In their statements Thursday, the Black Caucus and Democratic congressional delegation also reiterated their calls for the governor to step down, and the state House Democrats — who also previously called for Northam’s resignation — said they remain disappointed in him.

As for Herring, the congressional delegation cited his personal apologies and “in-depth discussions” with Virginia leaders in explaining why they were responding differently to his blackface admission.

“The attorney general has earnestly reached out to each of us to apologize and express his deep remorse,” said a statement by Virginia’s two U.S. senators and seven Democratic members of Congress.

Regarding the accusation against Fairfax, the black lawmakers said the sexual assault allegation against him must be “thoroughly investigated by the appropriate agencies.” The House Democrats said they would “continue to monitor” the accusation, while the congressional delegation said it respects “the right of women to come forward and be heard.”

If Fairfax ascends to the top office, he would be Virginia’s second black governor.

A California college professor has said Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him at a hotel in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Fairfax has cast the allegations as a political smear.

The district attorney’s office in Boston declined to say whether it is investigating. Under Massachusetts law, the statute of limitations is 15 years for rape and several related crimes, an interval that would expire this summer for the woman’s accusation.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump accused the Democrats of a double standard, tweeting: “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken.”

Northam, 59, has been under fire for a week over a photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook that showed someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

He at first admitted he was in the picture, then denied it a day later, but acknowledged he once blackened his face with shoe polish to imitate Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984.

His critics have faulted him for both his handling of the picture and his blackface admission.

Virginia Democrats fear the crises could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated legislature this year after big gains in 2017.


Associated Press writers Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston and Thomas Beaumont in Mason City, Iowa, contributed to this report.


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