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Virginia Democrats struggle with interlocking crises

Published
Virginia Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax smiles during the senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. A California woman has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia's Democrats struggled to find their way out of three interlocking political crises Thursday that could bring down the party's top elected officials and put a Republican in the governor's chair.

With Gov. Ralph Northam's career in peril over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, the state attorney general acknowledged on Wednesday that he put on blackface when he was in college, and a woman publicly accused the lieutenant governor of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago.

While nearly the entire Democratic establishment rose up against Northam over the past week to demand he resign, party members did not call for immediate resignations over the two latest developments, which threaten to cause a political chain reaction that could make a GOP legislative leader the governor.

President Donald Trump accused the Democrats of a double standard, tweeting: "If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken."

In a statement Thursday night, Virginia's Legislative Black Caucus reiterated its call for Northam to resign, but stopped short of calling for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax or Attorney General Mark Herring to step down. Fairfax would become Virginia's second black governor if Northam stepped down.

The black lawmakers said the sexual assault allegation against Fairfax must be "thoroughly investigated." They also said that while they appreciated Herring's "candor" in admitting to wearing blackface, they "await further action on his part to reassure the citizens of the Commonwealth of his fitness for leadership."

Shortly afterward, the state's two U.S. senators and seven Democratic congressmen took a similar approach. They released a joint statement calling for an investigation into Fairfax and urging Herring to continue to be "engaged in in-depth discussions with leaders and others in Virginia ... if he is to regain (the public's) trust."

Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, had initially predicted Northam would be unable to hang on to office for more than a week. Now, with all three top Democrats in trouble, the equation has changed, he said.

He said it is possible all three could survive just out of political necessity because conservative Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would be next in line for governor if they all resigned.

The Democrats' "moral clarity" last week has given way to the realization they could "lose power completely at the executive level," Kidd said. He likened the situation to three sinking boats "that suddenly lash themselves together and find they can float."

Several top Democratic female lawmakers in Virginia declined to comment Thursday on an allegation of sexual assault that California college professor Vanessa Tyson made against Fairfax. Tyson said Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex at a hotel in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Fairfax has denied the allegations, casting them as a political smear.

State Sen. Barbara Favola said "it's still a he-said, she-said" and suggested an investigation should be done in Massachusetts.

In Washington, Virginia's Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said he, too, would prefer to know more before reaching a conclusion. He said that the accuser offered "a very compelling and detailed statement of a serious, serious charge," while Fairfax has given "a very unequivocal denial."

Asked whether Northam should stay in office, Kaine replied: "No. We've reached a conclusion and we've made a recommendation."

Meanwhile, the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a fiery speech at historically black Virginia Union University that Northam and Herring must step down over their blackface admissions, and the allegations against Fairfax should be investigated thoroughly.

The civil rights leader said he came to Richmond to deliver a message to the governor: "I'm not going to be your minstrel!"

Members of the crowd of 300 students, faculty, clergy and political leaders shouted in agreement and jumped to their feet several times during Sharpton's speech.

The governor is under fire over the discovery of a photo on his yearbook profile page of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, then denied it, but acknowledged putting shoe polish on his face for a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.

On Wednesday, Herring, who had been urging Northam to step down, admitted wearing blackface to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old at the University of Virginia in 1980. He apologized for his "callous" behavior.

Up to now, the Democrats nationally have taken an aggressive stand against misconduct in their ranks, in part so that they can criticize Trump's behavior without being accused of hypocrisy.

Democrats in Virginia have expressed fear the crises could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated legislature this year after big gains in 2017.

___

Associated Press writers Alanna Durkin Richer, Elana Schor, Denise Lavoie and Matthew Barakat contributed to this report.

Virginia Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax looks over a briefing book prior to the start of the senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. A California woman has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2017 file photo, from left, Lt. Governor-elect Justin Fairfax, Attorney General-elect Mark Herring and Governor-elect Ralph Northam listen as Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe addresses a joint meeting of the House and Senate money committees at the Pocahontas Building in Richmond, Va.  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.  (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2018 file photo, Virginia Gov.-elect, Lt. Gov Ralph Northam, center, walks down the reviewing stand with Lt. Gov-elect, Justin Fairfax, right, and Attorney General Mark Herring at the Capitol in Richmond, Va.  The political crisis in Virginia exploded Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019,  when the state's attorney general confessed to putting on blackface in the 1980s and a woman went public with detailed allegations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor. With Northam's career already hanging by a thread over a racist photo, the day's developments threatened to take down all three of Virginia's top elected officials. 
(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
Del. C.E. Cliff Hayes, Jr., D-Chesapeake, leaves the Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Richmond, Va., after learning on that Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing a blackface. (Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2018 file photo, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announces a new Clergy Abuse Hotline his office is launching as he addressed a press conference at his office in Richmond, Va. Herring admitted to wearing blackface decades ago. In a statement issued Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, Herring said he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a black rapper during a party as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP, File)
In this undated photo provided by Scripps College, Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor in politics at Scripps College, poses for a photo. Tyson, a 42-year-old political science professor who studies the intersection of politics and the #MeToo movement, went public with her sexual assault accusation against Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, saying in a statement that she repressed the memory for years but came forward in part because of the possibility that Fairfax could succeed a scandal-mired governor. (Scripps College via AP)
Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the legislative black caucus, points to a member during the floor session of the House of Delegates chamber at the State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Vriginia Attorney General Mark Herring met with caucus members earlier after a report surfaced that he had worn blackface in college. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Graphic highlights the line of succession for Virginia governor and looks at strategic advantages democrats could benefit from; 3c x 4 3/4 inches; 146 mm x 120 mm;
FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2019 file photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a news conference in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Va.  Northam clung to his office Tuesday, Feb. 5, amid intense political fallout over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook and uncertainty about the future of the state's government. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
FILE-In this Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018 file photo, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring takes the oath of office during inaugural ceremonies at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Herring, admitted Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, to putting on blackface in the 1980s, when he was a college student. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax smiles during the senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. A California woman has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax smiles during the senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. A California woman has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Graphic highlights the line of succession for Virginia governor and looks at strategic advantages democrats could benefit from; 3c x 4 3/4 inches; 146 mm x 120 mm;
Graphic highlights the line of succession for Virginia governor and looks at strategic advantages democrats could benefit from; 3c x 4 3/4 inches; 146 mm x 120 mm;
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring arrives at his office at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. Herring is under fire after admitting to going to a party in blackface when he was 19 years old. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring arrives at his office at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. Herring is under fire after admitting to going to a party in blackface when he was 19 years old. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Abortion opponents hold signs and listen to speakers as they hold a rally on the steps of the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Abortion opponents hold signs and listen to speakers as they hold a rally on the steps of the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
A young boy holds a sign during an anti-abortion rally on the steps of the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
A young boy holds a sign during an anti-abortion rally on the steps of the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
In this undated photo provided by Scripps College, Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor in politics at Scripps College, poses for a photo. Tyson, a 42-year-old political science professor who studies the intersection of politics and the #MeToo movement, went public with her sexual assault accusation against Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, saying in a statement that she repressed the memory for years but came forward in part because of the possibility that Fairfax could succeed a scandal-mired governor. (Scripps College via AP)
In this undated photo provided by Scripps College, Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor in politics at Scripps College, poses for a photo. Tyson, a 42-year-old political science professor who studies the intersection of politics and the #MeToo movement, went public with her sexual assault accusation against Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, saying in a statement that she repressed the memory for years but came forward in part because of the possibility that Fairfax could succeed a scandal-mired governor. (Scripps College via AP)
FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2017 file photo, from left, Lt. Governor-elect Justin Fairfax, Attorney General-elect Mark Herring and Governor-elect Ralph Northam listen as Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe addresses a joint meeting of the House and Senate money committees at the Pocahontas Building in Richmond, Va.  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.  (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2017 file photo, from left, Lt. Governor-elect Justin Fairfax, Attorney General-elect Mark Herring and Governor-elect Ralph Northam listen as Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe addresses a joint meeting of the House and Senate money committees at the Pocahontas Building in Richmond, Va. 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. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
The State Capitol is illuminated in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Three of the top elected Democrats in the state are embroiled in controversy. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
The State Capitol is illuminated in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Three of the top elected Democrats in the state are embroiled in controversy. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2019 file photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a news conference in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Va.  Northam clung to his office Tuesday, Feb. 5, amid intense political fallout over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook and uncertainty about the future of the state's government. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2019 file photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a news conference in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Va. Northam clung to his office Tuesday, Feb. 5, amid intense political fallout over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook and uncertainty about the future of the state's government. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
Abortion opponents hold signs and listen to speakers as they hold a rally on the steps of the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Abortion opponents hold signs and listen to speakers as they hold a rally on the steps of the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2018 file photo, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announces a new Clergy Abuse Hotline his office is launching as he addressed a press conference at his office in Richmond, Va. Herring admitted to wearing blackface decades ago. In a statement issued Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, Herring said he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a black rapper during a party as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2018 file photo, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announces a new Clergy Abuse Hotline his office is launching as he addressed a press conference at his office in Richmond, Va. Herring admitted to wearing blackface decades ago. In a statement issued Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, Herring said he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a black rapper during a party as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2018 file photo, Virginia Gov.-elect, Lt. Gov Ralph Northam, center, walks down the reviewing stand with Lt. Gov-elect, Justin Fairfax, right, and Attorney General Mark Herring at the Capitol in Richmond, Va.  The political crisis in Virginia exploded Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019,  when the state's attorney general confessed to putting on blackface in the 1980s and a woman went public with detailed allegations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor. With Northam's career already hanging by a thread over a racist photo, the day's developments threatened to take down all three of Virginia's top elected officials. 
(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2018 file photo, Virginia Gov.-elect, Lt. Gov Ralph Northam, center, walks down the reviewing stand with Lt. Gov-elect, Justin Fairfax, right, and Attorney General Mark Herring at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. The political crisis in Virginia exploded Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, when the state's attorney general confessed to putting on blackface in the 1980s and a woman went public with detailed allegations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor. With Northam's career already hanging by a thread over a racist photo, the day's developments threatened to take down all three of Virginia's top elected officials. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
Virginia Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax looks over a briefing book prior to the start of the senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. A California woman has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax looks over a briefing book prior to the start of the senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. A California woman has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE-In this Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018 file photo, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring takes the oath of office during inaugural ceremonies at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Herring, admitted Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, to putting on blackface in the 1980s, when he was a college student. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE-In this Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018 file photo, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring takes the oath of office during inaugural ceremonies at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Herring, admitted Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, to putting on blackface in the 1980s, when he was a college student. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the legislative black caucus, points to a member during the floor session of the House of Delegates chamber at the State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Vriginia Attorney General Mark Herring met with caucus members earlier after a report surfaced that he had worn blackface in college. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the legislative black caucus, points to a member during the floor session of the House of Delegates chamber at the State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Vriginia Attorney General Mark Herring met with caucus members earlier after a report surfaced that he had worn blackface in college. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Del. C.E. Cliff Hayes, Jr., D-Chesapeake, leaves the Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Richmond, Va., after learning on that Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing a blackface. (Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Del. C.E. Cliff Hayes, Jr., D-Chesapeake, leaves the Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Richmond, Va., after learning on that Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing a blackface. (Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)