Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), at first, did not equivocate.
“I believe Dr. Vanessa Tyson,” the freshman lawmaker tweeted Wednesday evening, just hours after Tyson publicly alleged Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, sexually assaulted her in 2004.
Other Democrats have urged caution and raised suspicions about why Fairfax is now facing the charges. “This was 15 years ago and it’s mighty suspect that it would come out now,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Democrats are grappling with how to respond to charges against one of their own after their unified stand in the fall when Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh faced years-old sexual misconduct allegations, which he denied.
Some are urging a consistency of the cause regardless if it cuts short the career of a rising star such as Fairfax. Others are staking out different ground as the Virginia scandals pile up, acknowledging that one top priority is to retain control of the governor’s mansion.
And many Democrats, even those who took the lead against Kavanaugh’s nomination four months ago, just want to avoid the issue altogether.
“I’m from Illinois. I’ve got so many things I’m working on; that’s not one of them. I’m just not getting into it,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a senior member of the Judiciary Committee.
Even Wexton, less than 24 hours after tweeting that she believed Fairfax committed sexual assault, declined to say what should happen to the lieutenant governor. “I’m taking my elevator back to my office,” she said Thursday afternoon, declining to comment.
Just a few days ago, Democrats, both in Virginia and nationally, were touting their unified stance that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) should resign after admitting that he once wore blackface in a dance contest pretending to be Michael Jackson, which followed revelations that his medical school yearbook included racist photos.
Top party strategists declared a new zero-tolerance standard in the era of President Trump, whose bragging about unwanted sexual advances last decade did not impede him from winning the White House. Some Democrats declared that they would police their own side to a higher standard than Republicans had done with Trump and Kavanaugh.
It helped that Fairfax, 39, was poised to become only the second African American governor in Virginia history, the descendant of slaves ruling in Richmond, the onetime capital of the Confederacy.
But then came the assault allegations against Fairfax, followed by state Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) revealing that he had once worn blackface at a party while in college. Suddenly, the prospect of all three statewide officials resigning en masse emerged — with it, the likelihood that the Republican state House speaker would be next in the line of succession to become governor.
Now, Democrats are struggling with a confusing set of questions, trying to separate the three scandals into different baskets. Hanging on to the governor’s mansion, especially heading into the decennial redistricting in 2021, is critical.
“It’s in everybody’s mind, but no one really knows how it’s going to play out — who will stay, who will go, when will they go, how does the constitution work,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) told reporters on his way to a meeting of Virginia Democrats in Sen. Tim Kaine’s office.
It’s left Beyer and other Democrats in an almost untenable position.
He believes Tyson, a fellow at Stanford University and associate professor at Scripps College, is telling the truth.
“I’m inclined to believe that her statement is true; she seems very credible,” Beyer said. But he is deferring to others on whether Fairfax should resign.
“I’m also taking a look at people that deal closely with him, in that community, especially in the African American community, for first steps,” he said.
In defending Fairfax, some Democrats embraced similar themes that Republicans used to try to deflect accusations that Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford at a high school party: There was no contemporaneous report at the time, Tyson did not tell any friends at the time, and these allegations landed at a moment when Fairfax seemed poised to get a big promotion.
Butterfield said there should be an investigation into the allegations. “I think that we should not dismiss the allegations of the young lady, but they should be fully investigated . . . he should be afforded the presumption of innocence,” he said.
Durbin declined to say whether he believed Tyson. “I don’t know; I don’t know her,” he said. “All I know is what I read in the newspaper.”
Kaine said he was not guilty of hypocrisy because he did not take a position on Ford’s accusations until she and Kavanaugh testified publicly and he read FBI transcripts of interviews.
“I got to watch both sets, both individuals testify, and then judge their credibility. We’re not at that point yet,” he told reporters, saying nothing similar has happened with Fairfax. “What we have is a very compelling and detailed statement of a serious, serious charge — by, you know, a respected professional — and we also have a very unequivocal denial of that charge from somebody we know real well.”
One problem is that there is no legislative committee in Richmond that seems suited to conduct such an investigation or hold public hearings. It’s unclear how and where Fairfax and Tyson could testify in the manner that Kavanaugh and Ford did in late September.
So, for now, Democrats have privately concluded that they will publicly continue to call for Northam to resign, with the expectation that he has to hang on until all the issues involving Fairfax and Herring are resolved.
They do not want to force Northam out of office only to conclude a few days or weeks later that they want Fairfax to also resign.
The political high ground will take a back seat for now, and many Democrats just want to avoid talking about the Old Dominion.
“I’ll leave that up to them,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday.