By ALAN SUDERMAN and BEN FINLEY, Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The clamor for the resignation of Virginia’s top two politicians eased on Monday, with some black community leaders forgiving Gov. Ralph Northam over the blackface furor and calling for a fair hearing for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax on the sexual assault allegations against him.
Over the past several days, practically the entire Democratic establishment rose up to demand fellow Democrats Northam and Fairfax step down. But the tone changed markedly after the weekend.
A state lawmaker who had threatened to begin impeachment proceedings on Monday morning against Fairfax, Virginia’s highest-ranking black politician, set the idea aside after apparently running into resistance.
A group of black clergy and community leaders announced that they are willing to give a second chance to both Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, while urging due process for Fairfax. Herring, like Northam, has admitted putting on blackface in the 1980s.
And a separate set of black leaders issued a letter that essentially mapped out a way for Northam and Herring to redeem themselves in office by fighting racism in Virginia. The governor has three years left on his term.
As the interlocking scandals engulfing Virginia’s top three elected Democrats developed, it became increasingly clear that it could be problematic for the party if Fairfax were summarily pushed out and the two white men managed to stay in power.
“We’d be opening ourselves up to allegations of racism,” said Carol J. Pretlow, a political science professor at historically black Norfolk State University.
“There are some people in the community, particularly the younger people who I teach, who automatically say once a black person gets in office, then the effort is ‘Let’s see what we can do to discredit him.'”
Similarly, Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Virginia’s Christopher Newport University, said the way this plays out could look bad.
“The sort of irony that makes your head spin is that Herring and Northam are in trouble for behavior related to Virginia’s racial past. And yet it may be the only African American statewide officeholder who, at the end of the day, gets in trouble,” Kidd said. “This may get worse and more uncomfortable before it gets better — if it does get better.”
If Northam stepped down, Fairfax would become the second African-American governor in Virginia history. If all three Democrats resigned, a Republican could become governor: GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox is next in the line of succession.
Late last week, amid widespread calls for Fairfax’s resignation, Democratic Del. Patrick Hope announced plans to start impeachment proceedings on Monday. But Hope relented, tweeting that he got “an enormous amount of sincere and thoughtful feedback” from colleagues after circulating a draft of his impeachment bill, and “additional conversations … need to take place before anything is filed.”
Hours later, a group of eight black clergy and community leaders said during a news conference that they forgive Northam and want to give him a second chance. Former Richmond City Councilman Henry “Chuck” Richardson called Northam a “good and decent man” who has stood with African-Americans on issues important to them.
And a separate group of black leaders from around Virginia issued a letter spelling out what they expect Northam and Herring to do to fight racism if they are allowed to stay in office.
Their recommendations include taking down Confederate statues and decriminalizing marijuana, both of which would require action by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature. They also called on Northam to lead a campaign to raise $5 million for each of five historically black colleges and universities.
“Many have called for reconciliation, conversations, and healing. We are calling for all of the above, and more,” the black leaders said in a letter. “In our opinion, it is not enough for you to simply apologize, so we are requesting the following steps.”
Of the three men, Herring appeared to be in the least danger of being forced out. Black leaders said they felt he earnestly apologized.
Meanwhile, in interviews published Monday, Fairfax repeated his denials of the allegations by Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson, who have offered to testify against him. The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault, but both women have come forward voluntarily.
Fairfax said he has never sexually assaulted anyone and deserves due process.
“Everyone deserves to be heard. … Even when faced with those allegations, I am still standing up for everyone’s right to be heard,” he told The Washington Post.
Watson says Fairfax raped her while they were students at Duke University in 2000. Tyson, a California college professor, has accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004.
In an interview broadcast Monday, Northam provided a fuller explanation of his handling of the crisis, set off Feb. 1 by the discovery of a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page of someone in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, then denied it a day later, while admitting he wore blackface to a dance contest that same year.
Northam, 59, told “CBS This Morning” that he mistakenly took responsibility for the picture because had never seen the image before.
“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 as a pediatric neurologist before entering politics when he was nearly 50.
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.”
Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia. Contributing to this report were Associated Press reporters Denise Lavoie in Richmond; David McFadden in Baltimore; and Julie Pace and Michael Biesecker in Washington.