Virginia political turmoil could sink 3 top Democrats

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 the tangled political implications.

Republican House Speaker would seize governorship in the event of 3 ousters

Virginia Lt.-Gov. Justin Fairfax, left, Attorney General Mark Herring, centre, and Gov. Ralph Northam are engulfed in their own respective scandals as their fellow Democrats search for answers. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/Associated Press)

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 the tangled political implications.

Gov. Ralph Northam's career was already teetering over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook when the crisis spiralled out of control. First, the state's attorney general acknowledged Wednesday that he, too, wore blackface once, when he was a college student. And then a woman publicly accused the lieutenant-governor of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago.

The crisis threatens to bring down all three politicians, all of them Democrats. If Northam resigns, Lt.-Gov. Justin Fairfax stands to become Virginia's second black governor. Attorney General Mark Herring is next in the line of succession, followed by House Speaker Kirk Cox, a conservative Republican.

Cox, a former high school teacher who has served in the state's Republican-controlled House since 1990, said he was not convinced the yearbook scandal met the threshold for an impeachable offence. He called the controversies a disturbing circumstance.

President Donald Trump suggested the turmoil could improve his party's chances in the state.

Everyone in Richmond, it seemed, was waiting Thursday for Virginia's legislative black caucus to respond. The caucus has been calling for Northam's resignation over the past week, but was silent about the latest developments.

"We've got a lot to digest," the group's chairman, Democratic delegate Lamont Bagby, said Wednesday.

The scandal also extended to a Republican Thursday, when the Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported that state Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment was an editor of a 1968 yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute filled with racist images and slurs.

Stewart MacInnis, a spokesperson for the school, confirmed that Norment was the managing editor and the Pilot's report of the issue's racist content was correct.

The newspaper said that Norment declined to discuss the yearbook. His office did not respond to requests for comment.

'Too much flying around'

Herring, who had been urging Northam to step down and was planning to run for governor in 2021, 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.

He apologized for his "callous" behaviour and said the days ahead "will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve." Herring, 57, came forward after rumours about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol. But he made no mention of any photo.

Then Vanessa Tyson, whose sexual assault allegations against 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 the 42-year-old college professor from California issued the statement in her name.

Fairfax has repeatedly denied her allegations, saying the encounter was consensual and he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear.

Vanessa Tyson said in a statement that she came forward with her sexual assault allegation in part because of the possibility that Fairfax could succeed a scandal-mired governor. (Scripps College/Associated Press)

At the Capitol, lawmakers were dumbstruck over the day's fast-moving developments, with Democratic Sen. Barbara Favola of Virginia saying, "I have to take a breath and think about this." Republican House majority leader Todd Gilbert said it would be "reckless" to comment. "There's just too much flying around."

Implications within the state

Black lawmakers' response could set the tone for whether fellow Democrats demand the resignation of the lieutenant-governor and the attorney general.

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.

Cox issued a statement 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.

Gov. Northam refuses to resign over racist yearbook photo:

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam insists that no, on further consideration, that's not him in the racist photo that appeared on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. The announcement did nothing to quell the clamour from his own party for him to resign. 2:07

Democrats have expressed fear the uproar over the governor could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the Republican-dominated legislature in Virginia this year after making big gains in 2017.

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 behaviour without looking hypocritical — something Trump alluded to on Twitter.

Northam has come under pressure from nearly the entire Democratic establishment to resign after 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.

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.

With files from Reuters