Deepening Virginia political crisis threatens Democrats’ hold on governorship

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, accompanied by his wife Pamela Northam announces he will not resign during a news conference Richmond, Virginia, U.S. February 2, 2019. REUTERS/ Jay Paul

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Va., Feb 7 (Reuters) – Virginia’s political crisis showed no immediate sign of let-up on Thursday as Governor Ralph Northam and two fellow high-ranking Democrats faced the prospect of a Republican abruptly ascending to the pinnacle of state government in Richmond.

The upheaval deepened on Wednesday when the attorney general admitted to wearing blackface at a college party, and a woman came forward to level an accusation of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor, who has denied the allegation.

Northam, 59, a former U.S. Army physician who took office a year ago, was already fighting for his political life after a racist photo from his medical school yearbook page was made public last Friday, disclosed by the conservative media website Big League Politics.

The following day, he admitted to having worn blackface – a practice dating to 19th-century minstrel shows caricaturing slaves – in 1984 to impersonate pop star Michael Jackson.

He has remained in virtual seclusion since then, facing mounting calls for his resignation from fellow Democrats in Virginia, likely to be a key swing state in the 2020 presidential race.

One of those calling for Northam’s ouster, state Attorney General Mark Herring, 57, found himself embroiled in a similar scandal on Wednesday, admitting in a statement he once donned brown face paint at a party in 1980 to impersonate a rapper.

Herring, who has expressed gubernatorial ambitions of his own, apologized for “a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity.”

Meanwhile, pressure on Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, 39, intensified as his accuser released a statement alleging that he had forced himself on her sexually in a hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

The allegation first surfaced obliquely Sunday on the Big League Politics website, which two days earlier published the photo from Northam’s yearbook of a man in blackface standing beside a masked individual dressed in the hooded robe of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.

Fairfax on Wednesday again denied wrongdoing, insisting his encounter with the woman was consensual, adding, “I wish her no harm or humiliation.”

Fairfax, who is black, and Herring, who like Northam is white, are first and second in line, respectively, to succeed Northam as governor should he resign.

Controversies simultaneously engulfing all three men have raised the improbable scenario of the Democrats suddenly losing the governorship to a Republican without an election. Kirk Cox, 61, the Republican speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, is third in the state’s constitutional line of succession.

Despite Democrats’ professed commitment to rooting out bigotry and intolerance, Northam’s party might be motivated to rally behind him to avoid the prospect of Republicans suddenly assuming the governorship.

Cox, a former high school teacher who has served in the state’s Republican-controlled House since 1990, has said he was not convinced the yearbook scandal met the threshold for an impeachable transgression.

But he issued a statement on Wednesday calling the matrix of controversies a “disturbing” circumstance that “will be resolved in due course.” Meanwhile, he said, lawmakers would focus on budget deliberations and “hundreds of bills” they face before the legislative session ends Feb. 23.

The Virginia Republican Party renewed its call for Northam to step down while also saying Herring should quit.

Legislators otherwise kept a low profile, ducking reporters as they left the state capitol in Richmond following Wednesday’s legislative session. (Reporting by Gary Robertson in Richmond, Va. Writing by Steve Gorman Editing by Robert Birsel)

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