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Insight: Democrats display collective amnesia by blocking public testimony of Justin Fairfax’s accusers
Legislators need to hear Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson’s accusations against Virginia’s lieutenant governor
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
(CFP) — Collective amnesia is on display these days in Richmond, where Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Democrats in the House of Delegates are resisting calls to allow two women who have accused Fairfax of sexual assault to testify publicly.
Instead of the public testimony by his accusers, Fairfax wants prosecutors in North Carolina and Boston — where the alleged assaults took place — to investigate cases that are 19 and 15 years old, respectively, knowing full well that said prosecutors have absolutely no incentive to get involved in cases that involve no one now living in their jurisdictions and are unlikely to lead to criminal prosecution.
Fairfax knows this because he used to be a prosecutor. He has also trotted out results of two polygraph tests that he passed as proof of vindication, conveniently ignoring the fact that there is a reason these tests aren’t allowed in court — because every scientific study that has looked at the technology has concluded it’s not reliable.
Virginia House Democrats are resisting public testimony because, in the words of Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, the hearing proposed by Republicans would turn into “a politically motivated and unprecedented spectacle.”
Unprecedented? Really? Why, it’s as if they don’t remember Brett Kavanagh and Christine Blasey Ford.
Advocates in the #MeToo movement have also long asserted, with considerable justification, that victims of sexual assault should be believed because they have nothing to gain, and a lot to lose, from cooking up false claims against powerful men. And multiple claims increase credibility because they corroborate a pattern of behavior (just ask Al Franken and Roy Moore, neither of whom is a senator.)
In this case, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson — who did not know each other and had never met before being swept up in this maelstrom — tell remarkably similar stories. How Fairfax disarmed them with friendliness, got them alone, and then pounced on them using physical force. How he may have targeted them because he knew both women had suffered sexual abuse in their pasts. How traumatized both women still are, more than 15 years later.
To dismiss their claims, you have to believe that these two women, one living in California and the other living in Maryland, both decided to make up similar allegations against the same man years later; in Watson’s case, you also have to believe that she told people Fairfax assaulted her back in 2000 (as she says she did) in anticipation, apparently, of the day she would spring her sinister trap and make him pay.
For what reason? To what end? Fairfax himself has not speculated on this. But surely he must have a theory. Why do Tyson and Watson feel such white hot hatred toward him that they would put themselves in jeopardy for revenge, years and years after their interactions with him?
One theory that has emerged with a vengeance on social media is that this is all an effort by Republicans to bring down a powerful black man rising through the political ranks. But these women are unlikely conspirators — Watson and Tyson are also black, and Tyson met Fairfax when both were working at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Perhaps the most pernicious bit of nonsense in all of this is the assertion being made, mostly on social media, that because Watson had accused another man of rape before accusing Fairfax, she is somehow less credible. So, rather than saying, “Oh my God, this poor woman has been raped twice,” we should say, “this b**** must be making this up”? Does that make any sense, particularly when Watson claims that Fairfax himself told her that he thought her previous rape would make her less likely to call police?
Or does it make more sense to conclude that Fairfax did what he’s accused of doing and is now paddling furiously to save what’s left of his political career?
In his recent news conference where he released the polygraph results, Fairfax said, “Let me begin by emphasizing how important it is to listen to women when they come forward withe allegations of sexual assault or harassment.” OK, if you truly believe that, then what possible reason can Democrats have for not letting Tyson and Watson testify publicly and letting the chips fall where they may? After all, Brett Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court today.
Letting Tyson and Watson and Fairfax all testify before legislators would, no doubt, create a media circus. But what is the alternative? Prosecutors in North Carolina and Boston probably won’t, and certainly shouldn’t, waste their time and taxpayers’ money investigating claims that aren’t likely to lead to a criminal prosecution. And this is no longer about whether Fairfax should go to jail — it’s about whether he’s fit to remain in high political office, a question that certainly falls under the purview of Virginia legislators.
The legal standard is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But the political standard is, do we believe these women? And if we do, what should happen to Justin Fairfax?
In the Kavanaugh case, Republicans did not let credible allegations keep him from a lifetime on the Supreme Court. But at least they allowed Ford to have her say and let the public judge her credibility. Do Watson and Tyson deserve any less?
Virginia House Republicans have been reluctant to proceed with hearings without Democratic participation, no doubt because doing so would be seen as nakedly partisan. But should Democratic recalcitrance trump the need to fully and publicly vet serious, credible allegations against the second most powerful man in state government?
And can anyone say, with a straight face, how much we need to listen to sexual assault victims while at the same time thwarting efforts to let them be heard?
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Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax calls for criminal investigation of sexual assault allegations
Fairfax issues new denials after his accusers describe encounters in graphic, emotional detail on CBS
By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
RICHMOND (CFP) — Days after two women vividly described for a national television audience how they were sexually assaulted by Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, he called a news conference to once again deny the allegations and release results of polygraph examinations that he insists clear him.
“Sensationalizing allegations does not make them true,” said Fairfax, who admitted having sexual encounters with both women but said they were consensual. “Yet airing salacious allegations without evidence does enormous damage.”
Meanwhile, Republican and Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates continued to spar over whether to let Fairfax’s accusers, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, testify in a public hearing, as the women have requested.
Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox has proposed forming a special committee to hear their testimony, but House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn and Fairfax have resisted, saying a law enforcement agencies, not lawmakers, should investigate to keep the process from becoming politicized.
Tyson has alleged that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him when both were working at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Watson accused Fairfax of raping her in 2000, when they were personal friends while both attending Duke University.
This week, CBS This Morning aired the first national television interviews with the women since their allegations became public in February, during which both described their encounters with Fairfax in graphic and emotional detail to correspondent Gayle King.
“It was a huge betrayal. He was my friend,” Watson said, after describing how Fairfax invited her to his apartment, came into a room, locked the door, and then pinned her down and raped her. “I don’t understand how you do that to someone that you’ve been a friend to.”
She also she had confided to Fairfax that she had been raped by another student at Duke and that he told her after the assault that he thought her previous experience would make her too afraid to report his actions.
Tyson told King that after meeting Fairfax at the Democratic convention, he invited her to accompany him to his hotel room on an errand, and she agreed. As the two began kissing, with her consent, at the end of the bed, she said he grabbed her by the back of the neck and forced her face into his crotch.
“And I’m choking and gagging,” she said. “I was completely caught off guard. It was almost as if I was dumbstruck.”
She told King that prior to the assault, she had discussed with Fairfax her work as an advocate for sexual assault survivors and disclosed that she had been the victim of incest. She said he believes Fairfax “took advantage” of that disclosure to victimize her.
Tyson and Watson both said did not know each other prior to making their allegations and have never met. And Watson insisted she would have no incentive to make untrue allegations against Fairfax.
“The only thing coming forward has done is invited criticism and chaos and scrutiny of me and put me under a microscope,” she said.
At his news conference, Fairfax said he has asked prosecutors in Boston and Durham, North Carolina, where Duke is located, to investigate the allegations, which he said would lead to a “fair, serious and respectful process.”
“I will answer any and all questions, and I am willing to do so under oath and under penalty of perjury,” he said.
Fairfax said he had undergone two polygraph examinations from a nationally recognized polygraph examiner in which he was asked about the women’s allegations. He provided results that showed that the examiner concluded he had been truthful.
Polygraph examinations, commonly know as “lie detector tests,” are used as a law enforcement tool in dealing with suspects. However, results cannot be admitted in court because the reliability of the tests has not been conclusively established.
Fairfax denied the statements attributed to him by the women in their CBS interviews. He also said that neither women appeared upset after their consensual encounters with him, and both stayed in contact with him after the alleged assaults took place.
“If the facts alleged by Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson were true, they conduct would be criminal,” he said. “Such conduct is against everything I have stood for in both my public and private life.”
He said the allegations have been “incredibly hurtful to me and my family and my reputation, which I spent a lifetime building.”
Fairfax, 40, a former federal prosecutor, was elected as Virginia’s lieutenant governor in 2017. He was considered a rising star in Democratic politics until the allegations surfaced in February.
Tyson came forward in February when it appeared likely that Fairfax could become governor, as Governor Ralph Northam was fighting to stay in office after a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page came to light.
Despite calls from fellow Democrats for him to resign, Northam has remained in office.
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Lieutenant governor calls hearings “partisan,” doesn’t say if he’ll participate
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
RICHMOND (CFP) — Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates have decided to invite Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and two women who have accused him of sexual assault to air their versions of events in a public hearing.
“This will give all parties a chance to be heard,” he said.
However, a date for the hearing and details about the format were not announced. And while both women indicated they would participate, Fairfax’s office issued a statement characterizing the hearing as “partisan” and leaving his participation an open question.
“House Republicans want to pursue this historically unprecedented course of action because the accused is a popularly elected Democrat,” said Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke in a statement. “The path to finding truth and justice should be based on due process and the work of law enforcement professionals.”
The legislature’s current session ends on Saturday, although committees can meet between sessions. House Speaker Kirk Cox said the hearing announced by Bell was not an impeachment hearing, leaving it unclear if lawmakers could force Fairfax to testify.
The decision to organize a hearing marks a change in tactics for Republicans, who have been relatively silent over the past two weeks as Democrats have wrestled with how to deal with allegations of rape and sexual assault against a man who had been considered a rising star in their party.
Vanessa Tyson, a college professor in California, has alleged that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex in a Boston hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Meredith Watson, who now lives in Maryland, has accused Fairfax of raping her in 2000, when they were classmates at Duke University in North Carolina.
Fairfax, 40, a former federal prosecutor elected lieutenant governor in 2017, has denied both allegations and called on the FBI to investigate.
The age of the allegations and the fact that neither alleged assault took place in Virginia have complicated efforts to investigate, leaving it unclear which law enforcement agency might have the authority to do so.
Cox had proposed a special investigative committee, with an equal number of members from both parties and subpoena power, but the plan stalled when Democrats would not agree.
Bell’s committee has 10 Republicans and eight Democrats.
Watson’s attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, released a statement saying Watson was “gratified” by the decision to schedule a hearing and “looks forward to testifying at this forum.”
Smith also said it was her understanding that the hearing would be televised and that Watson would be able to call witnesses to corroborate her account.
Tyson’s lawyers also indicated she was “prepared to testify,” although she would prefer a bipartisan committee to avoid a “highly charged political environment.”
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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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Woman claims lieutenant governor sexually assaulted her; attorney general admits to wearing blackface
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
RICHMOND (CFP) — The turmoil in the top echelons of Virginia politics took a dramatic turn Wednesday, when a women publicly accused Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of sexual assault and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface as a teen, echoing a controversy already swirling around Governor Ralph Northam.
A little more than a year after Democrats swept to victory in all three statewide races, party leaders are reeling, as their three top state officeholders battle for political survival.
With Northam under pressure to resign, Fairfax and Herring are next in the line of succession to the governorship. Should all three be forced to depart, House Speaker Kirk Cox from Colonial Heights would take over as governor — flipping the office from Democrat to Republican.
The most serious charges have been raised against Fairfax, 39, a rising star in Democratic politics who was elected to lieutenant governor in 2017.
Vanessa Tyson, a political science professor in California, released a statement putting on the record her allegations against Fairfax, which were first published on a conservative website, Big League Politics, based on a private Facebook post.
Tyson said she decided to go on the record after Fairfax strongly denied the allegations, said the sex was consensual and threatened legal action against news organizations pursuing the story.
“Mr. Fairfax has tried to brand me a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions,” she said in the statement, issued through her attorneys. “Given his false assertions, I’m compelled to make clear what happened.”
Tyson said that during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, she accompanied Fairfax to his hotel room, where he forced her to perform oral sex after “what began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault.”
“Utterly shocked and terrified, I tried to move my head away, but could not because his hand was holding down my neck and he was much stronger than me,” she said. “I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual.”
At the time of the convention, Fairfax was an aide in the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry; Tyson was working at the convention.
Tyson, who holds a doctorate and is a tenured professor at Scripps College near Los Angeles, said the news that Fairfax might replace Northam “flooded me with painful memories, bringing back feelings of grief, shame, and anger.”
She said she began sharing the story of her encounter with Fairfax in 2017, when she learned that he was seeking office in Virginia.
She also spoke with the Washington Post, and, when the post decided not to run the story, “I felt powerless, frustrated, and completely drained.”
The Post has said it did not pursue the story because it could not corroborate either Fairfax or Tyson’s versions of event.
In response to Tyson’s statement, Fairfax issued a statement of his own again insisting that the sexual encounter was consensual.
“While this allegation has been both surprising and hurtful, I also recognize that no one makes charges of this kind lightly,” he said. “I wish her no harm or humiliation, nor do I seek to denigrate her or diminish her voice. But I cannot agree with a description of events that I know is not true.”
Tyson’s statement came just hours after Herring apologized for wearing blackface back in 1980, when he was a 19-year-old undergraduate at the University of Virginia.
“Some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song,” he said in a statement. “That conduct shows clearly that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others.”
He also said that “the shame of the moment has haunted me for decades” and “that I have contributed to the pain Virginians have felt this week is the greatest shame I have ever felt.”
Despite having this episode at UVA in his background, Herring had called on Northam to resign last week after a photo published on Northam’s yearbook page showed a man wearing blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan regalia.
Northam said he does not be believe he is one of the men in the 1984 photo and did not see it until it surfaced on Big League Politics. While he apologized for allowing the photo to be published on his page, he also admitted that he darkened his face to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest while serving as an Army doctor.
Northam has come under increasing pressure from Republicans, civil rights groups and even fellow Democrats — including both of Virginia’s U.S. senators and much of the 2020 presidential field — to step aside. He has so far refused.
After Herring’s admission, the Republican Party of Virginia called on him to resign as well, although the party has not yet issued a similar call for Fairfax.
“Like we have had to say too many times this week, racism has no place in Virginia and dressing up in blackface is wholly unacceptable,” said Jack Wilson, GOP state chair, in a statement.
“As we renew our call for Governor Northam’s resignation, we must regretfully add Mark Herring’s name to the list of Democratic elected officials that have lost the trust of the people of Virginia and have lost the moral authority to govern.”
Herring, 57, was elected as attorney general in 2013 and re-elected in 2017. Both he and Fairfax had been considered as possible candidates to succeed Northam as governor in 2021.
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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.