The crisis engulfing Virginia’s Democratic leaders continues to rage two weeks after the first scandal. The controversies come at a critical time, as the entire state legislature — where Republicans have a tiny 51-49 majority in the House and another tiny 21-19 majority in the Senate — is up for re-election in November.
Here’s an update on where things stand for each of the state’s embattled Democrats:
Governor Ralph Northam
Northam’s bizarre press conference in which he decided it wasn’t actually him in the yearbook photo he had owned up to the night before — and in which he was ready to moonwalk on national television before his wife stopped him — assuaged nobody. Democrats around the country have demanded his resignation, including the man under whom he served as lieutenant governor, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
These developments are ironic given that Northam spent the 2017 campaign against Republican Ed Gillespie insinuating that Gillespie was a racist for wanting to crack down on illegal immigration and MS-13, an attack strategy now coming back to haunt him. It’s also been revealed that the person who first provided the photo to the site that published it was angry about Northam’s comments supporting late-term abortion and infanticide.
Fortunately for Northam, the sexual assault allegations against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax have given him some breathing room, because Democrats decided they didn’t want an alleged racist to hand power over to an alleged rapist. It now looks like Northam is trying to tighten his grip on the governorship by attempting to show his desire to stay in power is actually a desire to take Virginia on a spiritual journey through the history of racism. Northam has declared he will spend his three remaining years as governor fighting for racial “equity” and lecturing Virginians on white privilege. He is requiring his Cabinet and state agencies to do racial sensitivity training — whatever that is — and wants to require all children in public schools to go through it too. He’s also setting up a “reconciliation tour” around the state.
A poll released over the weekend showed Virginians evenly split on whether Northam should resign. Northam really thinks he can ride it out, and with most of the attention focused on Fairfax, he might be able to. He can’t really be impeached for something he did 35 years ago. But if Northam stays on, Republicans will use him to bludgeon Democrats across the state all the way to November, and he will do permanent damage to the once-ascendant Democratic Party in Virginia.
Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax
The most serious scandal of all is the discovery of sexual assault allegations against Justin Fairfax. Many Democrats were salivating at the thought of Northam, a white man with a Southern accent, resigning and handing over the governorship to Justin Fairfax, the young and affable black lieutenant governor once thought to have a bright political future. However, all that has changed now.
The first allegation came from Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor at Scripps College in California, who says Fairfax forced her to perform a sexual act in a hotel room at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Fairfax was 25 years old and an aide to vice presidential nominee John Edwards at the time. Tyson says there was a mutual attraction, but that when Fairfax invited her to his hotel room it quickly went bad. The allegation has striking similarities to the Brett Kavanaugh case — both Tyson and Christine Ford are California professors, and both Fairfax and Kavanaugh were respected political figures who had never faced allegations against them before. But it’s also different in several crucial regards — Tyson has the exact date, exact location, and friends who can corroborate her account from the time it happened; plus, Fairfax acknowledged that he knew Tyson and that they did have a sexual encounter, though he claims it was consensual. He even said, “She was very interested in me” to the media before reportedly saying something horrible about her in a private staff meeting.
Tyson told The Washington Post about her allegation after Fairfax won his election in 2017, but after extensive interviews the Post declined to run the story because they reportedly couldn’t find corroborating evidence (though that didn’t stop them in the Kavanaugh case). Moreover, the Democrats who cried “believe all women” were nowhere to be found when Tyson came forward. The only Democrat who said anything in support of Tyson was Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton of Northern Virginia.
Then, the second allegation dropped — Meredith Watson, who attended Duke University with Fairfax, says Fairfax raped her in 2000 at a college party. (Watson also says she had been raped a year before by Corey Maggette, then a star player on the Duke basketball team who later became an NBA player. But she says when she reported it to the Duke administration, she was told to take a hike.) According to Watson, when she confronted Fairfax after the alleged assault and demanded to know why he did it, Fairfax told her that after the administration buried her complaint against the basketball player, he knew she wouldn’t report him. Watson’s lawyer says this is evidence that the rape was premeditated. Watson also has friends who knew her story, and Fairfax has also admitted to having a sexual encounter with her, though again he says it was consensual. After the second allegation, Democrats finally started calling for Fairfax’s resignation, though far fewer of them than demanded Northam’s resignation or went after Kavanaugh.
Now liberal media outlets are circulating reports that Watson had a restraining order filed against her in 2008 by a boyfriend who said she threatened him and herself. If she was raped twice as she alleges, she could hardly be blamed for having trouble maintaining healthy relationships, but it seems that the liberals who say “believe all women” are ready to take a page from the Clinton playbook try to discredit Watson.
Fairfax, for his part, has vociferously denied both allegations. He says it’s a coordinated smear campaign and has implied that Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney — another young, charismatic politician who would be a natural rival for Fairfax if both were to run for governor in 2021 — was behind the allegations. Both women have said they are ready to testify publicly, and Fairfax says he’s ready to sue one or both of them for making false criminal complaints. Tyson is reportedly in contact with the district attorney’s office in Boston, with the statute of limitations expiring this year.
If Fairfax were to resign or be impeached and removed, there is no explicit clause in the Virginia Constitution for his successor. But there is a general provision for filling vacancies that says the governor would appoint a replacement to serve until the next general election. In this case, if Northam holds on and Fairfax does not, Northam would appoint an interim lieutenant governor, and there would be a statewide race in November. That race would be critical because the lieutenant governor’s only real duty is to break ties in the Senate, which figures to remain closely split after November’s elections.
Delegate Patrick Hope, a Democrat from Northern Virginia, said he would introduce articles of impeachment this past Monday, but backed down at the request of fellow House Democrats. Fairfax is digging in for a fight. This one is far from over.
Attorney General Mark Herring
Herring, who is in his second term, quickly joined in the calls for Northam to resign when the governor’s scandal first broke. But then he revealed a few days later that he too had worn blackface when he was a 19-year-old college student at a party. Herring has tried to make it sound like he decided to admit the incident to promote racial healing. However, the Republican Party of Virginia says it was a cynical attempt to get ahead of the story, claiming they have credible sources that Herring admitted it only after a reporter called Herring’s office with some sort of evidence.
Herring would become governor if both Northam and Fairfax were to resign or be removed, and Democrats have been far less vocal in demanding Herring’s resignation. Why? Probably because Virginia’s line of succession dictates that if Herring left office in addition to Northam and Fairfax, the Speaker of the House of Delegates would become governor — and the speaker is a Republican, Kirk Cox. Congressman Don Beyer, another Democrat from Northern Virginia, admitted as much on CBS last Sunday.
Democrats are saying they’re giving Herring a chance because his apologies have been more profuse and sincere than Northam’s. At this point, Herring seems the most likely of the three to be able to survive. But if a picture of Herring in blackface exists and gets out, that would change things.
Photo credit: Skip Plitt via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0