With Virginia’s top three elected officials engulfed in scandal, fellow Democrats were rendered practically speechless, uncertain of how to thread their way through the racial and sexual allegations and their tangled political implications.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s career was already hanging by a thread over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook when a woman publicly accused the lieutenant governor of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago, and then the attorney general admitted that he too wore blackface once, as a teenager.
Everyone in Richmond, it seemed, was waiting Thursday for Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus to respond to the latest developments. “We’ve got a lot to digest,” the group’s chairman, Del. Lamont Bagby, said Wednesday.
Attorney General Mark Herring — in line to become governor if Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax resign — issued a statement acknowledging he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.
Herring — who had previously called on Northam to resign and was planning to run for governor himself in 2021 — apologized for his “callous” behavior and said that the days ahead “will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve.”
The 57-year-old Herring came forward after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol.
Also Wednesday, Vanessa Tyson, the California woman whose sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax surfaced earlier this week, put out a detailed statement saying Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
The Associated Press typically does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted, but Tyson issued the statement in her name.
Tyson, a 42-year-old political scientist who is on a fellowship at Stanford University and specializes in the political discourse of sexual assault, said, “I have no political motive. I am a proud Democrat.”
“Mr. Fairfax has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation,” she said. “Given his false assertions, I’m compelled to make clear what happened.”
Fairfax — who is in line to become governor if Northam resigns — has repeatedly denied her allegations, saying that the encounter was consensual and that he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear.
“At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years,” he said in a statement.
Tyson said she suffered “deep humiliation and shame” and stayed quiet about the allegations as she pursued her career, but by late 2017, as the #MeToo movement took shape and after she saw an article about Fairfax’s campaign, she took her story to The Washington Post, which decided months later not to publish a story.
The National Organization for Women immediately called on Fairfax to resign, saying, “Her story is horrifying, compelling and clear as day — and we believe her.”
The string of scandals that began when the yearbook picture came to light last Friday could have a domino effect on Virginia state government: If all three top Democrats fall, House Speaker Kirk Cox, a conservative Republican, would command the state.
Cox issued a statement late Wednesday calling the allegations against Fairfax “extremely serious” and said they need a “full airing of facts.” Cox also urged Herring to “adhere to the standard he has set for others,” a nod to Herring’s previous call that Northam resign.
At the Capitol, lawmakers were dumbstruck over the day’s fast-breaking developments, with Democratic Sen. Barbara Favola saying, “I have to take a breath and think about this. This is moving way too quickly.” GOP House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said it would be “reckless” to comment. “There’s just too much flying around,” he said.
The black caucus quickly condemned Northam and called on him to resign after his initial comments about the yearbook photo, but the group has been silent so far on the allegations involving Fairfax and Herring.
Democrats have expressed fear that the uproar over the governor could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated Virginia legislature this year. The party made big gains in 2017, in part because of a backlash against President Donald Trump, and has moved to within striking distance of a majority in both houses.
At the same time, the Democrats nationally have taken a hard line against misconduct in their ranks because women and minorities are a vital part of their base and they want to be able to criticize Trump’s behavior without looking hypocritical.
Trump accused Democrats Thursday of political bias, tweeting that “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken.”
Northam won the governorship in 2017, and Democrats made big gains in the state, in part because of a backlash against Trump, and has moved to within striking distance of a majority in both houses.
Democrat Hillary Clinton carried Virginia in the 2016 presidential election. Trump predicted in his tweet that the state “will come back HOME Republican) in 2020!”
Northam has come under pressure from nearly the entire Democratic establishment to resign after the discovery of a photo on his profile page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
The governor initially said he was in the photo without saying which costume he was wearing, then denied it a day later. But he acknowledged he once used shoe polish to blacken his face and look like Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.
Herring came down hard on Northam when the yearbook photo surfaced, condemning it as “indefensible,” and “profoundly offensive.” He said it was no longer possible for Northam to lead the state.
On Wednesday, though, Herring confessed that he and two friends dressed up to look like rappers, admitting: “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it.”
“That conduct clearly shows 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 said. But he added: “This conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since.”
Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas said several people were crying, including men, as Herring apologized to black lawmakers Wednesday morning before issuing his public statement.
“He said he was very sorry,” Lucas said.
Lucas said the black lawmakers told Herring they needed to discuss their next steps among themselves.
Herring, who was elected to his second four-year term in 2017, made a name for himself nationally by playing a central role in bringing gay marriage to Virginia. His refusal to defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage once in office was cited by a federal judge who overturned the ban, and Virginia began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2014, nearly a year before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.