RICHMOND, Va. — A Virginia lawmaker on Monday backed off his plans to swiftly introduce an impeachment bill seeking the ouster of the state’s leading black elected official as Democrats struggled to address revelations of past racist behavior and allegations of sexual assault roiling its highest levels of office.
The effort to impeach Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was prompted by the emergence of two women who accused him of sexual assault in the 2000s. Fairfax has vehemently denied the claims and called for authorities, including the FBI, to investigate.
Democratic Del. Patrick Hope tweeted early Monday that he got “an enormous amount of sincere and thoughtful feedback” from colleagues after circulating a draft of his impeachment bill, and that he sees that “additional conversations … need to take place before anything is filed.”
There’s been little sign of broad appetite for impeachment, with lawmakers set to finish this year’s session by the month’s end. But the Legislature is swirling with questions about lines of succession and the political fallout for Democrats should their governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general leave office, willingly or not.
Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring are still trying to regain their political standing after awkwardly acknowledging that they each once wore blackface as young men in the 1980s . Calls for Northam’s resignation raised the prospect of Fairfax taking over, which prompted his accusers to come forward.
All three scandals involve events that happened long before these leaders took office, but they’ve become a full-blown crisis for Democrats. The party counts on the support of black voters and has taken an almost zero-tolerance approach to sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era. A housecleaning could be costly: If all three resign, Republican state House Speaker Kirk Cox would become Virginia’s governor.
In an interview broadcast Monday, Northam provided a more complete explanation of his statements that set off this whole crisis following the discovery of a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook. Northam initially said he was in the photo of a person wearing blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe; then he denied it, while saying he did wear blackface to a dance party that same year.
Northam told “CBS This Morning” that he overreacted and mistakenly took responsibility for the picture because had never seen the image before, even though it was on his yearbook page.
“When you’re in a state of shock like I was, we don’t always think as clearly as we should,” said Northam, who worked for years as a pediatric neurologist before entering politics.
But “when I stepped back and looked at it, I just said I know it’s not me in the Klan outfit. And I started looking in the picture of the individual with blackface. I said that’s not me either,” he said.
His first lesson from all this, Northam said, was to understand what it means to be “born in white privilege.”
“I have also learned why the use of blackface is so offensive, and yes, I knew it in the past. But reality has really set in,” Northam said. “I’ve still got a lot to learn but this has been a week that has been very eye-opening for me.”
Northam also charted a path forward, saying he would dedicate the rest of his tenure to policies aimed at helping his black constituents.
“I really believe that things happen for a reason,” he said. “I will focus on race and equity. That’s something that, for the next three years, is going to be my commitment to Virginia. And I really think we can make impactful changes.”
Political considerations will be key to what comes next. Virginia is among a handful of states electing lawmakers this year, and Democrats had hoped to flip the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
It’s possible that lawmakers will launch some sort of investigation of Fairfax, even if impeachment isn’t immediately in the cards. Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson have accused him of sexual assault and offered to testify.
The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they are victims of sexual assault, but both women have come forward voluntarily.
Watson alleges Fairfax raped her while they were students at Duke University in 2000, her attorney said in a statement. Tyson, a California college professor, accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004.
Fairfax denies ever sexually assaulting anyone. He has made clear that he does not intend to immediately step down, and has urged authorities to investigate.
“Frankly, we really want any entity with comprehensive investigative power to thoroughly look into these accusations,” Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke said. “There needs to be verification of basic facts about these allegations. It feels like something bigger is going on here.”
Some political observers noted that the threshold to start an impeachment process is remarkably high in the House of Delegates. The lawmakers are set to leave town before February ends, and have limited time and resources to immediately take on the complicated issue.
Still, “a clear sign of the depth of LG Fairfax’s political crisis is the near-absence of voices in Virginia politics this weekend publicly urging him to remain in office,” University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth said in an email.
If the Legislature is in session, the House would need a simple majority to vote to impeach Fairfax, said A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor. The Senate would then review evidence and hear testimony. That chamber would need a two-thirds vote to convict among senators who are present.
Another possibility: Fairfax simply hangs on as he disputes the allegations.
“Before Donald Trump, I would say with this kind of stuff, it’s impossible for a person to just hang on, put their head down and ignore it,” said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University. “Post-Donald Trump, I think what elected officials are willing to do has changed in some ways. So can he hang on? Certainly he can hang on.”
If Fairfax were to leave, it’s unclear who could replace him. Northam may try to appoint a Democrat, while Republicans could mount a legal challenge with the goal of getting Senate Pro Tem Steve Newman to serve as both a voting senator and temporary lieutenant governor.
The attorney general’s future also remains in question. Herring, who would become governor if both Northam and Fairfax leave office, initially made a forceful call for Northam to step down, but then he too acknowledged wearing blackface at a party in 1980. Herring has apologized but has not indicated he would resign.
Asked for his opinion on his subordinates, Northam told CBS it’s up to them to decide whether they want to stay. He said he supports Fairfax’s call for an investigation into the sexual assault allegations. Of Herring, he said that “just like me, he has grown.”
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