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Political support for Virginia lieutenant governor collapses, with impeachment threat on the table
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
RICHMOND (CFP) — Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax’s political problems have gone from bad to worse after a second woman stepped forward Friday to accuse him of sexual assault, with his political support in free fall as his fellow Democrats desert him.
Fairfax is now calling for an FBI investigation into claims of sexual assault made by Meredith Watson, who says he raped her in 2000, and Vanessa Tyson, who says he forced her to perform oral sex on him in 2004.
In a statement issued Saturday, he acknowledged having consensual sexual encounters with both women but urged Virginians not to “rush to judgment” before the claims are investigated.
“I say again without reservation: I did not sexually assault or rape Meredith Watson, Vanessa Tyson or anyone else,” he said in a statement released late Saturday. “Our American values don’t just work when it’s convenient — they must be applied at the most difficult of times.”
But Fairfax is facing momentum growing against him, including a call for his resignation by the Democratic Party of Virgina, which put out a statement on Twitter calling the sexual assault allegations “credible” and saying the lieutenant governor “no longer has our confidence or support.”
Fairfax — the only African American holding statewide office — has even lost the support of the members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who said in a statement that “we can’t see it in the best interest of the Commonwealth of Virginia for the Lieutenant Governor to remain in his role.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Delegate Patrick Hope of Arlington said he will introduce articles of impeachment to remove Fairfax if he does not step down by Monday.
“As the father of three young girls, I cannot stand by silently while the lieutenant governor is facing multiple, credible allegations of sexual assault,” Hope told reporters at a news conference Friday night. “My sincere hope is that this will not be necessary and the lieutenant governor will heed the calls of many to resign this weekend.”
The latest allegations are a stunning reversal in the political fortunes of Fairfax, who just a week ago was poised to take over as governor with Governor Ralph Northam under pressure to resign over a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page.
Should Fairfax resign, Northam — or whoever is sitting in the governor’s chair — will pick a replacement, with an election in November to fill the final two years of Fairfax’s term. Impeachment would be a decision for the Republican-controlled legislature.
In a statement released Friday, lawyers for Watson alleged that Fairfax raped her in 2000, when they were both students at Duke University. The statement did not give details of the attack but described it as “premeditated and aggressive.”
Her attorneys also indicated that she has emails and Facebook posts that document that she told other people about the attack right after it happened. She decided to come forward after learning of a claim made earlier in the week by Tyson, a California college professor who said Fairfax sexually assaulted her during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004, according to her attorneys.
“Ms. Watson was upset to learn that Mr. Fairfax raped at least one other woman after he attacked her,” the statement said. “(She) is reluctantly coming forward out of a strong sense of civic duty and her belief that those seeking or serving in public office should be of the highest character. She has no interest in becoming a media personality or reliving the trauma that has greatly affected her life.”
Democratic leaders largely stood by Fairfax after Tyson’s allegation. But the dam burst once Watson came forward, imperiling the political future of a man who had been seen as a rising star in Democratic politics.
“The allegations against Justin Fairfax are serious and credible,” McAuliffe said on Twitter. “It is clear to me that he can no longer effectively serve the people of Virginia.”
“The allegations against him detail atrocious crimes, and he can no longer effectively serve the Commonwealth,” Kaine tweeted. “We cannot ever ignore or tolerate sexual assault.”
Virginia’s other Democratic U.S. senator, Mark Warner, and the dean of its U.S. House delegation, Democrat Bobby Scott, both stopped short of calling for Fairfax’s immediate resignation, although they said he should resign if the charges are substantiated.
Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates also called for Fairfax to resign, including Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and both African Americans in the race, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
“The allegations … are corroborated, painful stories of sexual assault and rape. It’s clear Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax should resign his office,” Harris said on Twitter.
The new allegations against Fairfax cap a week of turmoil in the Old Dominion, with all three top statewide Democratic elected officials enmeshed in controversy, a little over a year after they were swept into office in a Democratic wave
The turmoil began when Big League Politics, a conservative website, published a photo from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page showing a man wearing blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan regalia.
After first appearing to concede that he was in the photo and apologize, Northam then said he does not be believe he is one of the men in the photo.
But after apologizing for allowing the photo to be published on his page, he compounded his problems by admitting that he darkened his face to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest while serving as an Army doctor.
In his first interview since the scandal broke, with the Washington Post, Northam said he will not resign and would spend the remaining three years of his term working for racial reconciliation in the commonwealth. He also said he “overreacted” in quickly issued his initial apology that he later walked back.
Adding to the meltdown in Richmond was an admission by Attorney General Mark Herring that he wore blackface while impersonating a rapper when he was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia.
However, Democratic leaders have so far not bailed on Herring, which prompted the Republican Party of Virginia to accuse them of hypocrisy and giving the attorney general “a hall pass.”
“What is the difference between Governor Northam’s blackface and AG Herring’s?” said Jack Wilson, state GOP chairman, in a statement. “If there is no difference, shouldn’t Democrats call for both to resign?”
Wilson said Democrats were protecting Herring to maintain “their stranglehold” on state government. If Northam, Fairfax and Herring were to all depart, House Speaker Kirk Cox from Colonial Heights would take over as governor — flipping the office from Democrat to Republican.
However, that would only be possible if Northam left first. If he were still governor when Fairfax resigned, he could pick a replacement who would supplant Cox in the line of gubernatorial succession.
If Herring resigns, the legislature would pick his replacement if lawmakers in session; if not, then Northam would pick a replacement who would serve until the legislature reconvenes.
The current legislative session is scheduled to end on February 23.
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Justin Fairfax threatens legal action over encounter that his attorneys tell Washington Post was consensual
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
RICHMOND (CFP) — As Virginia Governor Ralph Northam fights to stay in office amid a raging controversy over a racist photo, the man who would take over if Northam departs, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, is pushing back against a sexual assault allegation.
Fairfax came out swinging after Big League Politics — the same conservative website that published a racist photo that appeared on Northam’s medical school yearbook page — reported on a private Facebook post from a woman who claims she was assaulted during the 2004 Democratic Convention.
The woman does not explicitly name Fairfax as her attacker in the post but describes her attacker as someone elected to statewide office in 2017 who is about to “get a very big promotion” — a description that fits Fairfax.
After Big League Politics posted the story, Fairfax’s office issued a statement denying the allegation, insisting that the Washington Post investigated the woman’s claim after Fairfax was elected in 2017 and declined to publish a story after finding “significant red flags and inconsistencies.”
That prompted the Washington Post to publish a story in which the newspaper denied finding “significant red flags and consistences.” It said no story was published because Fairfax and the woman “told different versions” about their encounter, neither of which could be corroborated.
The Post also reported that Fairfax, through his attorneys, described his encounter with the woman as consensual.
In 2004, Fairfax was working for the campaign of then-U.S. Senator John Kerry, who was the Democratic nominee for president that year. He was single at the time; he married in 2006.
Big League Politics said it obtained the private Facebook post from a friend of the woman, who said she had the woman’s permission to share it. The website identified the woman making the assault allegation but said it had not spoken with her.
ChickenFriedPolitics does not identify sexual assault victims who have not gone on the record with their story.
Fairfax’s denial came in a statement attributed to his chief of staff, Lawrence Roberts, and his communications director, Lauren Burke.
“He has never assaulted anyone — ever — in any way, shape or form,” the statement said. “Not one other reputable media outlet has seen fit to air this false claim. Only now, at a time of intense media attention surrounding Virginia politics, has this false claim been made.”
His spokespeople also said the lieutenant governor “will take appropriate action against those attempting to spread this defamatory and false allegation.”
Fairfax, 39, has been in the spotlight since Friday when the racist photo on Northam’s 1984 yearbook page appeared on Big League Politics. The photo shows two men, one in blackface and the other dressed in Ku Klux Klan regalia.
The governor says he believes he is not one of the men pictured in the photo, but he apologized for allowing the photo to be published on his yearbook page. He also admitted to darkening his face to impersonate Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984.
Leading Democrats and civil rights leaders, as well as Virginia Republicans, have been pressuring Northam to resign, but he has so far resisted.
Should Northam step down, Fairfax would serve out the remaining three years of his term. If both offices were vacated, under state law Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, would take over.
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Northam’s amended narrative comes after growing number of Democrats pressure him to step down
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com
RICHMOND (CFP) — A day after saying he was “deeply sorry” for a photo on his medical school yearbook page in which two men are shown wearing racist costumes, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam now says he believes he is not pictured in the photo and will not resign.
But while addressing reporters Saturday with his political career hanging by a thread, Northam admitted to another incident that could compound his difficulties — that he darkened his face with shoe polish to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest in 1984, the same year the offensive photo was published.
After the news conference, during which the governor offered a frequently disjointed narrative under questioning from reporters, his political position deteriorated further.
“I cannot condone the actions from his past that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping, and intimidation,” said Fairfax, who is African American. “At this critical and defining moment in the history of Virginia and this nation, we need leaders with the ability to unite and help us rise to the better angels of our nature.”
The Democratic governor said his initial statement on Friday — made after the photo appeared on a conservative website, Big League Politics — was an apology directed at people who were offended by the photo, not an admission that he had participated in it.
“When my staff showed the photo in question yesterday, I was seeing it for the first time,” Northam said the news conference in the Executive Mansion, standing next to his wife, Pam. “When I was confronted with these images yesterday, I was appalled that they appeared on my page. But I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo.”
“I stand by my statement of apology to the many Virginians who were hurt by seeing this content,” he said. “It is disgusting. It is offensive. It is racist. And it was my responsibility to recognize and prevent it from being published in the first place.”
The photo was published in a yearbook for students at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, from which Northam graduated in 1984.
The yearbook page is headlined with Northam’s name and contains two pictures of him, along with a third photo in which one man is wearing blackface and another is dressed in Ku Klux Klan regalia.
Northam said that after looking more closely at the photo and talking to his medical school classmates overnight, he does not believe he is the man in blackface and that “there is no way I have ever been” in a KKK uniform.
He also said he had no recollection of attending the party where the photo was taken.
The governor conceded that he understands “that many people will find this difficult to believe.”
Northam has come under intense pressure to resign, not only from Republicans but from within his own party. But he said he would stay as governor and try to repair relationships with those offended by the photo.
“If I were to listen to the voices calling on my to resign my office today, I could spare myself from the difficult path that lies ahead. I could avoid an honest conversation about harmful actions from my past,” he said. “I cannot in good conscience chose the path that would be easier for me in an effort to duck my responsibility to reconcile.”
However, Northam indicated he might revisit the issue of resignation if the controversy affected his ability to serve as governor.
The lengthening list of Democrats calling for Northam to step aside includes his predecessor as governor, Terry McAuliffe; Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee; and six Democrats seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, including U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, both African Americans.
During the news conference, Northam said in 1984, while an Army doctor in San Antonio, he “darkened” his face with shoe polish while impersonating Michael Jackson in a dance contest, which he said he won because he could moonwalk.
He said he recalled the episode years later while talking about blackface with an African-American aide, which made him realize how offensive his conduct had been.
“In the time and place where I grew up, many actions that we rightfully recognized as abhorrent today were commonplace,” he said.
Northam — who ran for state office four times without anyone making the yearbook photo an issue — also said “there was an agenda involved” with whomever provided the yearbook page to Big League Politics, although he declined to speculate on a possible motive.
The website did not reveal the source of the photo.
The photo’s release came amid a firestorm of criticism aimed at Northam over comments he made in support of a bill easing restrictions on late-term abortions, which led conservative critics to accuse him of endorsing infanticide.
Describing a late-term abortion procedure, Northam said, “so in this particular example if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
Northam, 59, grew up on a farm on Virginia’s southeastern shore. After graduating from medical school, he served as a physician in the Army before entering private practice as a pediatric neurologist.
He was elected as governor in 2017, after serving a term as lieutenant governor and six years in the Virginia Senate.
Fairfax, 39, an attorney from the Washington D.C. suburbs, was elected lieutenant governor in 2017, after making an unsuccessful run for attorney general in 2013.