RICHMOND, Va. >> Virginia’s state government seemed to come unglued today as an embattled Gov. Ralph Northam made it clear he won’t resign and the man in line to succeed him was hit with another sexual assault accusation and barraged with demands that he step down too.
Top Democrats, including a number of presidential hopefuls and most of Virginia’s congressional delegation, swiftly and decisively turned against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would become Virginia’s second black governor if Northam quit.
The twin developments came at the end of an extraordinary week that saw all three of Virginia’s top elected officials — all Democrats — embroiled in potentially career-ending scandals fraught with questions of race, sex and power.
Northam, who is a year into his four-year term, announced his intention to stay during an afternoon Cabinet meeting, according to a senior official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
In so doing, Northam defied practically the entire Democratic Party, which rose up against him after a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced and he acknowledged wearing blackface in the 1980s.
Later in the day, the governor issued a statement to government employees, saying, “You have placed your trust in me to lead Virginia forward — and I plan to do that.” In a sign that he intended to return to business as usual, he also announced more than a dozen appointments to state boards.
Meanwhile, a woman came forward with a statement accusing Fairfax of attacking her when they were students at Duke University in North Carolina in 2000. The Associated Press is not reporting the details because the allegation has not been corroborated.
Fairfax emphatically denied the new allegation, as he did the first one, leveled earlier this week by California college professor Vanessa Tyson, who said Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004.
“It is obvious that a vicious and coordinated smear campaign is being orchestrated against me,” Fairfax said.
Duke campus police have no criminal reports naming Fairfax, university spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said. Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn also said he couldn’t find a report in the department’s system on the 2000 allegation.
Many Democrats who had carefully withheld judgment after the first accusation against Fairfax, saying the matter needed to be investigated, immediately turned against him.
Top Democrats running for president in 2020 called for Fairfax’s resignation, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Booker cited “multiple detailed allegations” that he found “deeply troubling.” Gillibrand called the details “sickening and horrendous.”
And several members of the state’s congressional delegation, both black and white, also said Fairfax can no longer serve in office.
The tumult in Virginia began late last week, with the discovery of the photo on Northam’s yearbook page that showed someone in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam at first admitted he was in the picture, then denied it a day later, but acknowledged he once put shoe polish on his face to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984.
Virginia soon slid deeper into crisis on Wednesday, when Attorney General Mark Herring acknowledged wearing blackface at a college party in 1980, and Fairfax was publicly accused of sexual assault for the first time.
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.
As the crisis deepened in the middle of the week, Democratic leaders and black members of the Virginia legislature appeared willing to give both Fairfax and Herring the benefit of the doubt for the time being — in Herring’s case, because he apologized personally for wearing blackface.
At the start of the week, Cox said there was little appetite among lawmakers to remove Northam through impeachment, saying resignation “would obviously be less pain for everyone.”