By Katharine Jackson
Virginia’s embattled governor, Ralph Northam, capped a week of political chaos ignited by racial scandals by vowing to stay in office on Friday, while the fellow Democrat in line to succeed him faced a second accusation of sexual assault.
Lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax issued a statement denying both allegations as a “coordinated smear campaign”. He said the latest accusation, that he had raped a fellow student at Duke University in 2000, was “demonstrably false” and declared he would not step down. Fairfax, 39, insisted earlier this week that his encounter with a woman who has accused him of forcing himself on her sexually at a hotel in Boston 14 years ago was entirely consensual.
But Friday’s accusation sparked a round of calls for the resignation – and even a threat of impeachment – of the once-promising young politician who seemed poised days ago to replace Northam and become the second African-American governor in Virginia history.
The second in line to succeed Northam, attorney-general Mark Herring, 57, came under fire with his own admission this week that he, like Northam, had once darkened his face to imitate a black performer – a practice widely considered to be racist.
The possibility of all three top-ranked leaders of Virginia’s executive branch having to resign raised the prospect of Democrats losing the governorship to the Republican speaker of the state House of Delegates, who is next in the line of succession. And that possibility has tested Democrats’ resolve to show zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and racial bigotry.
It also has stirred Democrats’ concerns that political discord in Virginia, a key swing state in presidential elections, could flip it back into the Republican column in the 2020 White House race.
The upheaval began with the revelation last Friday that Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page contained a racist photo, followed by his acknowledgment of, and apology for, masquerading in blackface that year as pop star Michael Jackson.
After a week hunkered down in virtual seclusion under mounting pressure to resign, Northam indicated in an email message on Friday to state employees that he planned to keep his post. “You have placed your trust in me to lead Virginia forward – and I plan to do that,” Northam said.
In a separate statement responding to the latest allegation against him, Fairfax said he has “never forced myself on anyone ever” and demanded a “full investigation into these unsubstantiated and false allegations”.
“I will clear my good name and I have nothing to hide,” Fairfax wrote, and declared: “I will not resign.”
But the latest allegation of rape brought a torrent of demands for Fairfax to quit, including from all of the state House and Senate Democrats, the Legislative Black Caucus, former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe and Virginia’s two US senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats. One state House member, Democrat Patrick Hope, said on Twitter that he planned to introduce articles of impeachment for Fairfax on Monday unless he resigned.
The woman who made the new accusation, identified as Meredith Watson, said she was “reluctantly coming forward out of a strong sense of civic duty and her belief that those seeking or serving in public office should be of the highest character”, the law firm that is representing her said in a statement.
The firm, New Jersey-based Smith Mullin, said the alleged assault occurred in 2000. Watson is “not seeking any financial damages”, and her attorneys had notified Fairfax through his lawyers “that Ms. Watson hopes he will resign from public office”, the firm said in its statement.
The Smith Mullin statement said the alleged attack on Watson “was premeditated and aggressive”, while also saying Fairfax and Watson “were friends but never dated or had any romantic relationship”.
The law firm said it possessed emails, Facebook messages and statements to corroborate that Watson had shared her account of events immediately after the alleged rape. Fairfax’s first accuser, Stanford University academic Vanessa Tyson, has alleged that Fairfax had forced her to perform oral sex in a hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
She came forward days after the disclosure by a conservative website of a racist photo on Northam’s 1984 yearbook page of one person with blackface and another dressed in white robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Northam had originally admitted he was one of the people in that photo, but later said that he was not.
Seeking to mend fences with Virginia’s African-American population, Northam on Friday met privately with the president and founder of the National Black Farmers Association, John Boyd Jr., in Richmond, the state capital. Boyd told Reuters the two men prayed together and “we asked for forgiveness.”
Boyd, whose group says it represents 109,000 farmers across the country, said on Twitter that he urged the governor not to step down.