Tu­mul­tuous times for Vir­ginia pol­i­tics

Lieu­tenant gover­nor faces im­peach­ment this week as con­tro­versy swirls around gover­nor, at­tor­ney gen­eral

Santa Fe New Mexican - - NATION & WORLD - By Alan Suderman

Vir­ginia law­mak­ers on Mon­day will re­luc­tantly face the un­prece­dented prospect of im­peach­ing the state’s sec­ond most pow­er­ful leader as they strug­gle to ad­dress rev­e­la­tions of past racist be­hav­ior and al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual as­sault roil­ing its high­est lev­els of of­fice.

At least one law­maker said he will try to pur­sue im­peach­ment of Demo­cratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fair­fax af­ter two women ac­cused Fair­fax of sex­ual as­sault in the 2000s, a move that ex­perts be­lieve would be a first in Vir­ginia. Fair­fax has ve­he­mently de­nied the claims and called for au­thor­i­ties, in­clud­ing the FBI, to in­ves­ti­gate.

There’s 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 the gover­nor, lieu­tenant gover­nor or at­tor­ney gen­eral leave of­fice, will­ingly or not.

Gov. Ralph Northam and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark Her­ring, both Democrats, are em­broiled in their own scan­dal af­ter ac­knowl­edg­ing they wore black­face in the 1980s. Northam, a pe­di­atric neu­rol­o­gist, said Sun­day that he con­sid­ered re­sign­ing but that he’s “not go­ing any­where” be­cause the state “needs some­one that can heal” it.

Northam said on CBS’ Face the Na­tion that it’s been a dif­fi­cult week since a racist photo in his 1984 med­i­cal school year­book sur­faced, show­ing a per­son wear­ing black­face next to an­other per­son in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam ini­tially said he was in the photo, then de­nied it the next day, while ac­knowl­edg­ing that he did wear black­face to a dance party that same year.

“Vir­ginia needs some­one that can heal. There’s no bet­ter per­son to do that than a doc­tor,” Northam said. “Vir­ginia also needs some­one who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral com­pass. And that’s why I’m not go­ing any­where.”

The scan­dals have be­come a full-blown cri­sis for Vir­ginia Democrats. Although the party has taken an al­most zero tol­er­ance ap­proach to sex­ual mis­con­duct in the #MeToo era, a house­clean­ing in Vir­ginia could be costly: If all three Democrats re­signed, Repub­li­can state House Speaker Kirk Cox would be­come gover­nor. 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 Repub­li­can­con­trolled Gen­eral As­sem­bly.

Demo­cratic Del. Pa­trick Hope said he wants to in­tro­duce ar­ti­cles of im­peach­ment Mon­day against Fair­fax, who is black. Mered­ith Wat­son and Vanessa Tyson have ac­cused him of sex­ual as­sault and of­fered to tes­tify at any im­peach­ment hear­ing.

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.

The lieu­tenant gover­nor is­sued a state­ment Satur­day again deny­ing he ever sex­u­ally as­saulted any­one and mak­ing clear he does not in­tend to im­me­di­ately step down. In­stead, he 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 said it’s pos­si­ble im­peach­ment would move for­ward in the House of Del­e­gates — even if the thresh­old to start the process is re­mark­ably high. How­ever, law­mak­ers are set to leave town be­fore Fe­bru­ary ends and may lack the time and re­sources to im­me­di­ately take on the com­pli­cated is­sue.

“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 sp­re­sent sen­a­tors.

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.

Mean­while, the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s fu­ture is un­known. Her­ring, who ac­knowl­edged wear­ing black­face at a party in 1980, would be­come gover­nor if both Northam and Fair­fax left of­fice. Her­ring has apol­o­gized but has not in­di­cated he would re­sign, de­spite his ini­tial force­ful call for the gover­nor to step down.

Asked Sun­day for his opin­ion on his sub­or­di­nates, Northam told CBS that it’s up to them to de­cide whether they want to stay in of­fice. 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.”

Northam’s pledge Sun­day to work on heal­ing Vir­ginia’s racial di­vide was his sec­ond in as many days. In his first in­ter­view since the scan­dal erupted, he told the Washington Post on Satur­day that the up­roar has pushed him to con­front the state’s deep and lin­ger­ing divi­sions, as well as his own in­sen­si­tiv­ity.

STEVE HELBER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam at­tends the fu­neral Satur­day for Vir­ginia State Trooper Lu­cas B. Dow­ell at Chil­howie Chris­tian Church in Chil­howie, Va. Dow­ell was killed in the line of duty early last week.

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