Virginia’s state government seemed to come unglued on Feb. 8 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 stands to become the state’s second black governor if Northam quits.
“Fairfax can no longer fulfill his duties,” the Democratic caucuses of both the state House and Senate said in a joint statement.
The developments came near the end of an astonishing 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, now a year into his four-year term, announced his intention to stay at an afternoon Cabinet meeting, according to a senior official who 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 on Friday, 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.” Signaling plans to resume business as usual, he also announced more than a dozen state board appointments.
Meanwhile, a second woman accused Fairfax of sexual assault Friday, saying the Democrat raped her 19 years ago while they were students at Duke University. A lawyer for Meredith Watson, 39, said in a statement that Fairfax attacked Watson in 2000.
The statement said it was a “premeditated and aggressive” assault and that while Watson and Fairfax had been social friends, they were never involved romantically.
The lawyer, Nancy Erika Smith, said her team had statements from ex-classmates who said Watson “immediately” told friends Fairfax raped her. A public relations firm representing Watson provided The Associated Press with a 2016 email exchange with a female friend and 2017 text exchanges in which Watson said Fairfax had raped her.
Watson’s representatives declined to provide further documentation and said their client would not be talking to journalists.
Fairfax emphatically denied the new allegation, as he did the first leveled earlier by Vanessa Tyson, a California college professor who said Fairfax forced her to perform sexual acts 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 condemned 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.”
The dean of Virginia’s Democratic congressional delegation requested immediate investigations of the women’s allegations against Fairfax. Yet Rep. Bobby Scott did not join the state’s six other Democratic U.S. House members in calling for Fairfax’s immediate resignation.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, held off from directly calling for Fairfax’s resignation. He said the women’s allegations are serious and Fairfax should resign if they are true.
“Sexual assault is never acceptable,” his statement said.
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 resigned by then.
If Fairfax were to leave, there’s no consensus on 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 late last week, with the discovery of the photo on Northam’s yearbook profile page that showed someone in blackface standing beside another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
Northam also made comments in regards to his apparent willingness to kill babies after birth.
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 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 to them: If all three Democrats resigned, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would become governor.
As the crisis widened by midweek, 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.”
By Alan Suderman