The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Virginia, a strange state of stasis

From left, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring, Gov. Ralph Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. The state’s top three Democrats were engulfed by scandal in February, but none of them stepped down. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has begun doing something normal for most politicians but risky for him: appearing in public and taking questions from reporters.

Tarnished by a blackface admission and a racist photo on his page in an old yearbook, Northam defied widespread calls to resign and spent weeks in a cocoon of private meetings and tightly controlled events.

But the glare of national attention has faded. Northam dismissed his outside crisis management team when its two-week contract expired. And, with increasing confidence, he has begun exercising the power of his office.

His reemergence coincides with the General Assembly’s return to Richmond on Wednesday for a one-day session to tie up loose ends.

Lawmakers who adjourned in February amid a cyclone of scandal that also caught up the lieutenant governor and attorney general will find a strange stasis at the Capitol.

Northam isn’t going away — despite taking responsibility for the photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook, then disavowing it but confessing to wearing blackface in a dance contest the same year. And neither is Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), who denies two separate allegations of sexual assault, nor Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who admitted wearing blackface during his college days.

Virginia’s three leaders engulfed in turmoil, with Herring disclosure from college days

The nation will be reminded of the accusations against Fairfax starting Monday, when “CBS This Morning” airs an interview between Gayle King and one of the women, Vanessa Tyson, to be followed by a segment on Tuesday with a similar interview with the second woman, Meredith Watson.

On Sunday, Fairfax’s representatives released a lengthy statement that said he voluntarily took and passed two polygraph tests that “demonstrate that the accusations made against the lieutenant governor are false.”

To conduct the tests, Fairfax hired Jeremiah Hanafin, a former FBI agent who administered a polygraph exam to Christine Blasey Ford — the woman who in September accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

The revelations about Northam and Herring and the accusations against Fairfax, which unfolded over a single week in February, have left the state in an extraordinary position. The entire executive branch is hobbled, but there is no mechanism to clean house and move on. Governing has become a daily push into the unknown: What does authority look like when even supporters want a leader to resign?

And on top of that, it’s an election year in Virginia, the only state in the country with a competitive contest for control of its legislature. Republicans have a two-seat majority in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, and they hope the Democratic disarray will help them expand that margin and cement their dominance.

Virginia Republicans see chance to bounce back amid Democratic scandals

“Politicians certainly can survive difficult circumstances,” said Ross Garber, a lawyer who has represented several governors under threat of impeachment, including Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Sanford (R) overcame a 2009 sex scandal involving an Argentine mistress, completed his term with high approval ratings and went on to win a seat in Congress.

“People move on, the press moves on, and other issues supplant bad stories in people’s minds,” Garber said.

Against that backdrop, Virginia’s political elite have settled into a wary equilibrium. Democratic lawmakers are once again making public appearances with Northam, even though their caucuses have called on him to resign. The GOP is slamming Democrats for standing beside “Gov. Blackface,” even as Republicans work with his Cabinet behind the scenes on budget issues.

For his part, Northam is not only resuming the routine activities of being governor, he’s getting more aggressive. Rather than quietly sign, amend or veto bills, Northam in the past week has staged several unusual public events, all with some link to the theme of racial reconciliation.

He took members of the news media on a tour of Central State Hospital outside Petersburg to promote his call for a new mental health facility in an area that’s heavily African American. He staged a news conference to propose requiring hands-free cellphone use in cars — with a study to ensure that minorities are not unfairly targeted by law enforcement.

At another public event, Northam pressed for ending the suspension of driver’s licenses over unpaid court fees, a priority of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

Northam amends motorist measures with ‘race inequities’ in mind

In most of those appearances, he used some form of the word “equity.” It’s a term that has become his rhetorical touchstone — the concept for which he pledged to fight when he said he would remain in office.

Northam’s office said he has come to realize that the negative publicity over his scandal has a flip side, in that it gives him a bigger bully pulpit. “There’s certainly a level of attention on the governor right now and . . . giving these issues a greater platform and attention moving forward seems like a good use of that,” said Ofirah Yheskel, Northam’s communications director.

Several members of the black caucus, who in February called on Northam to step down, now seem resigned to the fact that he remains.

“If he’s going to stay in that seat, he owes it to the commonwealth to continue to do his job,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), the black caucus chairman. “In light of his decision, we have but one alternative, and that is to work with him to make sure we are accomplishing the goals set out by our caucus.”

Black lawmakers met with Northam on March 20 to review actions the governor planned to take in advance of Wednesday’s General Assembly veto session.

“You have seen the results of the things that we have been working on together,” Bagby said, noting that Northam has sought budget amendments to ensure that underrepresented communities are counted in next year’s census, add money to the affordable-housing trust fund, increase opportunities for minority contractors and seek more tax relief for low-income residents. Those, Bagby said, “have all been good moves.”

Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) praised Northam for signing bills supporting foster parenting and stood with him at his news conference on driver’s licenses. But in an interview the previous week, Carroll Foy said she still thinks he should step down.

“I still stand with the Democratic caucus and the [black caucus] in asking for Governor Northam and Lieutenant Governor Fairfax to resign . . . because we do not believe that they can effectively lead,” said Carroll Foy, who has ambitions of her own to run for higher office.

Carroll Foy said Democrats are flexible and will work with Northam as long as he is governor. But she also acknowledged that having a crippled executive branch hurts Democrats in fundraising in a crucial election year.

Could the scandals that cripple the state’s top three men create an opening for a black woman?

All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot this fall. One Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about a sensitive topic, said some in the party now think they were too hasty when they called for Northam’s resignation.

“What do you do when you call on someone to resign, who’s a great person, that you like personally, who’s doing good policy work, but you still have the elephant in the room that you called on them to resign?” the strategist said. “There’s no recipe for that.”

Some Democrats said the desire for Northam’s resignation began cooling after the legislative session, when they returned to their home districts and began campaigning for reelection. The scandals, they said, were not foremost in voters’ minds.

“A lot of people say, ‘I did some stupid stuff 30 years ago. If it was yesterday, that’s a different story,’ ” said a Democratic senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity to assess the situation. “I’ve had more door conversations that have said, ‘Let bygones be bygones. And he should have a fair chance to, number one, make amends, but also highlight the good things he’s done.’”

During a recent community meeting in Henrico County, for instance, a largely African American audience asked a panel of legislators numerous questions about taxes, schools and health care but made no mention of scandals.

As Northam works to restore his political clout, the way forward for the other two leaders remains unclear.

Herring had urged Northam to resign just days before his own confession that he darkened his face to imitate a rapper at a party in 1980. Democrats have not called for Herring to step down; some praised him for the way he handled his apology. Herring is also the only one of the three whose replacement would be picked by the Republican legislature if he resigned.

But Herring, who before the scandal said he intended to run for governor in 2021, has made few public appearances in the past two months and has not spoken with the governor in several weeks.

He took questions early in March on Kojo Nnamdi’s radio show in Washington, and two weeks ago showed up at a Loudoun County forum about whether to memorialize victims of lynchings. At that event, he brushed away repeated questions from a television reporter about his own situation.

Instead, Herring has been emailing news releases touting his efforts on gun control, against predatory lending and his challenges to the Trump administration, such as joining other states in suing over the Affordable Care Act. Two weeks ago, outside the Supreme Court, he answered a few questions about Virginia’s pending redistricting case.

In some ways, Fairfax’s situation is the most uncertain of all.

Watson said Fairfax assaulted her while they were students at Duke University in 2000. Tyson said Fairfax assaulted her during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. Fairfax denies both claims and says the sexual encounters were consensual.

In February, House Republicans promised to hold a public hearing to receive testimony from both accusers and from Fairfax. Nothing has been scheduled.

Va. Republicans plan public hearings into sex assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax

Watson has said she is not interested in pursuing criminal charges.

In the other case, a lawyer for Tyson said in mid-February that she was working to set up a meeting with prosecutors in Boston. A spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins declined to say whether the meeting took place or if an investigation is underway.

Tyson’s attorney, Debra Katz, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fairfax has called on law enforcement to investigate the women’s claims, but his staff said he has not been contacted by any authorities or by House Republicans.

In the statement released Sunday about the polygraph tests, Barry J. Pollack, Fairfax’s lawyer, said “a meaningful, professional, factual investigation would exonerate the lieutenant governor and clear his well-earned good name and reputation.”

A lawyer himself, Fairfax has been on leave from the Morrison & Foerster firm since the scandal broke in early February. The firm launched its own investigation of the claims, but a spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the inquiry is complete.

Since the legislative session ended, Fairfax has slogged through a pile of about 1,000 bills that he had to sign before they could head to the governor’s desk. Aside from that, he helped his wife, a dentist, take care of their two young children and attended some political and community events.

At those appearances, Fairfax often speaks fervently about feeling wronged. Last weekend at a black history event in Richmond, he drew a parallel between himself and civil rights icon Dorothy Height and noted that as she fought against lynchings, “people were being falsely accused, they were not given due process.”

He joined Northam at that event — the first time the men had seen each other in more than six weeks.

Northam has called for an investigation into his own scandal, one aimed at determining the origin of the yearbook photo. The image shows one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb. Northam initially apologized for appearing in the picture, but a day later he said it wasn’t him.

He vowed to identify the people in the photo, suggesting that facial recognition software might help. There was talk of hiring a private investigator. The status of those efforts is unclear.

“I don’t have an update,” Yheskel, the governor’s spokeswoman, said recently.

In addition, Eastern Virginia Medical School retained former Virginia attorney general Richard Cullen to lead a team from the law firm McGuireWoods to solve the photo mystery. Cullen declined to comment on the investigation’s progress.

Confidantes who’ve kept in contact with Northam over the past several weeks say he’s been buoyed by the swirl of activity around the upcoming veto session. “The busier you are, the better off you are,” said state Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-King George), one of Northam’s closest friends in the legislature. “He’s in good spirits, he’s doing well and he’s moving forward.”

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