Over the last week, two women have gone public with detailed allegations of rape and sexual assault. Fairfax adamantly denies their claims, but several prominent Democrats are now calling on Fairfax to step down.
The list includes Virginia’s two US senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner; former Gov. Terry McAuliffe; the Democratic caucuses in both the Virginia House and Senate; the Virginia legislative black caucus, and a half dozen statewide lawmakers.
It’s been a chaotic week in the commonwealth after the top Democratic leaders became embroiled in scandal. It began with Gov. Ralph Northam, whose medical school yearbook page surfaced last week with a racist picture of a man in blackface, another wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam emphatically denies being either individual in the 1984 image, but he does admit to dressing in blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest that same year. Days later, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface at a party in the 1980s, too.
Before his own scandal came to light, Democrats propped up Fairfax as the obvious replacement to Northam, particularly since the governor’s controversy was laced so heavily with racism. Had Fairfax succeeded Northam in office, he would have been just the second black governor in Virginia’s history.
Many prominent Democrats said little throughout the week, but once a second accuser came forward Friday — with corroborated accounts of her alleged attack — that’s when chips began to fall.
The allegations by Dr. Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson are corroborated, painful stories of sexual assault and rape. It’s clear Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax should resign his office.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) February 9, 2019
Northam reiterated on Friday — after Fairfax’s second accuser came forward — that he refuses to step down amid his own scandal. Now, state leaders and prominent Democrats are turning their attention to the lieutenant governor.
Vanessa Tyson, a professor at Scripps College, came forward on Wednesday alleging that Fairfax forced her to have oral sex after what began as “consensual kissing” during an encounter in 2004. A second accuser, Meredith Watson, went public on Friday describing how Fairfax allegedly raped her while the pair attended Duke University in 2000. Watson’s account has been backed up by several friends and former classmates who say there were told of her alleged assault immediately after it happened.
Fairfax categorically denies both assault allegations. Earlier in the week, he said he was the victim of a “smear campaign.” Even before Northam’s scandal created a possible political opening for him, Fairfax was considered a rising star in the Democratic Party. The former federal prosecutor is just the second African American elected to statewide office in Virginia, and he’s raised his national profile in recent years by standing up for racial justice and stumping for other prominent black candidates in the south.
But now it appears that his own seat is in jeopardy.
A chaotic line of succession gives Republicans an opening to take control of Virginia
Northam has been able to cling onto his seat for the last week, but given the severity of the allegations against Fairfax, it’s unclear whether the lieutenant governor will be able to last as long.
Virginia Del. Patrick Hope, a Democrat, says he plans to introduce articles of impeachment on Monday if Fairfax refuses to resign by then. The articles would need approval from House GOP Speaker Kirk Cox in order to move forward in the legislature. And Cox has already said he feels it’s appropriate for Fairfax to resign.
The whole scandal throws the line of succession into a chaotic mess. If Northam were to step down, Fairfax was next in line to take over the governorship, followed by Herring. But the three tracks of controversies lead to a combination of succession routes should any or all of the embattled politicians choose to willingly leave office — or be impeached.
The next in the line of succession after Herring are two Republicans. First comes Cox, the House speaker. Behind him is Steve Newman, leader of the Virginia Senate.
Politico reports that state Republicans are eyeing the scandal as an opportunity to make gains in statewide races after several years of “leftward drift” in Virginia. And after a rough midterm election for Republicans both statewide and nationally, the scandal fallout — whether Northam, Fairfax, or Herring step down or not — may be just what they’ve been waiting for.