RICHMOND, Va. >> Virginia’s embattled lieutenant governor today called for authorities, including the FBI, to investigate sexual assault allegations made against him while defying widespread calls for his resignation with a plea for “space in this moment for due process.”
Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax issued a statement repeating his strong denials that he had ever sexually assaulted anyone and made clear he does not intend to immediately resign, despite having lost almost his entire base of support.
Meanwhile, Gov. Ralph Northam pledged to work at healing the state’s racial divide and made his first official appearance a week after a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced and he acknowledged wearing blackface in the 1980s. Northam has also defied calls from practically his entire party to step down.
Today capped an astonishing week in Virginia politics that saw all three of the state’s top elected officials embroiled in potentially career-ending scandals, and the state Democratic Party on the verge of collapse.
Two women have accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault. After the second allegation was made Friday, Fairfax — the second African-American to ever win statewide office— was barraged with demands to step down from top Democrats, including a number of presidential hopefuls and most of Virginia’s congressional delegation.
Northam —now a year into his four-year term — has told his top staff he’s staying in office and said he wants to focus the rest of his term as governor on taking concrete steps toward increasing racial equality.
In his first interview since the scandal erupted, a chastened Northam told The Washington Post today that the uproar has pushed him to confront the state’s deep and lingering divisions over race, as well as his own insensitivity. But he said that reflection has convinced him that, by remaining in office, he can work to resolve them.
“It’s obvious from what happened this week that we still have a lot of work to do,” Northam said in the interview, conducted at the Executive Mansion. “There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity.”
Northam said he planned to focus on addressing issues stemming from inequality, including improving access to health care, housing, and transportation. He also repeated his contention that he is not pictured in the photo on his yearbook page that shows someone in blackface standing alongside someone in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. But he could not explain how the photo wound up there, or why he initially had taken responsibility for it.
“I overreacted,” he said. “If I had it to do over again, I would step back and take a deep breath.”
Today, Northam made his first official public appearance since he denied being in the photo, attending the funeral for a state trooper killed in a shootout. But he made no public comments upon arriving in Chilhowie, four hours west of the tumult in Richmond.
The lieutenant governor did not make any public appearances today and released his statement late in the day, after Republican state House Speaker Kirk Cox and the Democratic Party of Virginia joined a chorus of other calls for Fairfax to resign.
Two women have made allegations against Fairfax. A lawyer for Meredith Watson, 39, said in a statement that Fairfax raped Watson 19 years ago while they were students at Duke University.
Vanessa Tyson, a California college professor, said Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004.
Fairfax has denied both allegations and today asked that “no one rush to judgment.”
“Our American values don’t just work when it’s convenient — they must be applied at the most difficult of times,” he said.
Since the two allegations were made, many top Democrats running for president in 2020 have called for Fairfax’s resignation, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Virginia’s Democratic congressional delegation was split.
Party elders Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Bobby Scott said Fairfax should resign if the allegations against him were true.
Other congressional Democrats made unqualified calls for Fairfax to resign.
The Virginia Black Legislative Caucus joined calls for Fairfax’s departure. And a Democratic member of the state House, Del. Patrick Hope, said he intends to introduce articles of impeachment against Fairfax on Monday if Fairfax hasn’t left by then.
Hope is not a powerful figure in the House and there’s little sign there’s a broad appetite for impeachment with lawmakers set to finish this year’s legislative session by the end of the month.
If Fairfax were to leave, it’s unclear who could replace him. Northam may try to appoint a Democrat, while Republicans could mount a legal challenge with the goal of having Sen. Steve Newman, the Senate’s pro tem, serve as both a voting senator and temporary lieutenant governor.
The tumult in Virginia began Feb. 1, with the discovery of the photo on Northam’s yearbook profile page.
Northam at first admitted he was in the picture, then denied it a day later, but acknowledged he wore blackface to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984.
Attorney General Mark Herring has since acknowledged wearing blackface at a college party in 1980. Herring — who would become governor if both Northam and Fairfax resign — had previously called on Northam to resign and came forward after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol.
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 to them: If all three Democrats resigned, Republican Cox would become governor.
Democrats are also despondent about what the scandals have done to their chances of flipping control of the General Assembly. All 140 legislative seats will be up for grabs in November and Democrats had previously been hopeful that voter antipathy toward President Donald Trump would help them cement Virginia’s status as a blue state. Now many fret their current crisis in leadership will not only cost them chances of winning GOP-held seats, but cost them several currently held by Democrats.