The day after Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) denied allegations of sexual misconduct, Democrats grappled with how to respond without betraying a rising star in their party or abandoning victims in the #MeToo era.
Nearly all Democrats at the state and federal level swiftly called for Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to resign over a racist photo from his 1984 yearbook that became public Friday.
But lawmakers and party officials interviewed took a more circumspect approach to the allegation against Fairfax, which surfaced Monday, just three days later.
Although Democrats at the state and national level have been quick to say women should be believed and that all allegations should be investigated, they say they are resisting a rush to judgment.
Unlike claims of assault against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, former senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), former congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and others, Virginia Democrats privately note the accuser in the Fairfax case has not yet offered evidence she says corroborates her claim.
The dilemma shows the trouble they have enforcing a policy of zero tolerance.
“I have so many different things going through my head right now,” said Monique Alcala, chair of the state Democratic Party’s Latino caucus and a Fairfax supporter since he first made a splash in state politics by nearly winning the 2013 Democratic primary for attorney general.
“I could be totally wrong on this, but I just don’t buy it,” Alcala said, referring to conspiracy theories that fellow Democrats were behind the accusations, in which a woman said Fairfax sexually assaulted her in Boston in 2004.
At the same time, she said, “I’m a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault; it’s hard to grapple with those two things. I’m a Democrat because we provide people with an opportunity for their stories to be told.”
Fairfax met with Democratic state senators Monday morning in Richmond to deny the allegations as he did publicly.
Northam apologized Friday for a racist photo that appeared in his yearbook and the next day insisted he wasn’t in the photo. He is facing a torrent of calls for his resignation, which he has so far resisted. If Northam were to resign, Fairfax would become governor.
Quentin Kidd, the director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said Democrats are in a bind.
“The silence is deafening from Democrats,” he said. “They may be thinking, ‘We don’t want to throw our lieutenant governor under the bus while we’re also trying to throw our governor out of office.’ Republicans are probably eating all the popcorn they can find right now. It’s quite a show.”
The cascading scandals played out as lawmakers are in Richmond for the final weeks of the legislative session. National media camped out around a statue of George Washington in the rotunda between the state House of Delegates and the Senate and sprang to life when either chamber took a break. Delegates and state senators, even those known for their chattiness, mostly waved off questions.
Democrats almost uniformly took their cues from the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which Monday evening released a statement saying lawmakers take all allegations of sexual assault or misconduct “with the utmost seriousness.”
“Given the recent allegations regarding Lieutenant Governor Justice Fairfax, the VLBC will continue to assess this developing situation as more details become available,” the statement continued. The state party released a nearly identical statement.
The two sentences became a mantra for lawmakers in Richmond and on Capitol Hill.
Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Richmond), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, has called on Northam to resign but won’t talk about Fairfax.
State Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) said she’s praying for Northam to resign and hoped he felt more pressure, not less, as Fairfax dealt with problems of his own.
“We don’t have all the information,” she said, “but we take any allegation of sexual abuse or harassment very seriously and so we’re going to wait and see how the information evolves.”
In Washington, Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, both Virginia Democrats, urged Northam to resign but said nearly nothing with respect to Fairfax.
“Every person who has a claim that they have been sexually assaulted deserves to tell their own story in their own time, and that’s not yet happened,” Kaine told CNN. “So to venture a thought or an opinion about it . . . I just think that would be premature.”
Through a spokeswoman, Warner noted Fairfax’s denial that “anything nonconsensual occurred” and added: “Senator Warner believes every allegation deserves to be heard and taken seriously.”
Fairfax co-hosted a fundraiser for Warner in 2009 and was one of several co-chairs of Warner’s 2014 Senate reelection campaign.
Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) seemed to speak directly to Fairfax’s accuser, who had not come out publicly by Tuesday night. Wexton, a former state senator, overlapped with Fairfax in Richmond for one session.
“Right now, it’s critical that we treat these allegations with the seriousness they deserve,” she said in a statement. “If the lieutenant governor’s accuser wants to come forward, we must make sure she feels safe and supported. Allegations of sexual assault should be heard — period.”
When they did speak, state lawmakers expressed the uniform sentiment that they’re focused on the final frenzied weeks of the legislative session.
“Focusing on the budget now,” said Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax), shaking her head and walking away.
At the same time, they said, the chaos roiling two of their party’s top leaders is a distraction they don’t need.
“It’s getting harder and harder to do our job when the only thing people care about is what’s happening in the executive branch,” Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax) said. “To the extent that whatever happens, we can resolve it as soon as possible and move this cloud away from us, that’s exactly what people would want, Republicans and Democrats.”
Most Republicans have been content to let Democrats’ problems unfold uninterrupted.
“What’s going on with the lieutenant governor?” Del. Steve Landes (R-Augusta) said coyly before adding: “I don’t have any comment, thanks.”
Fenit Nirappil and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.