Virginia governor vows to stay; calls mount to oust lieutenant governor

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) – Virginia’s embattled governor, Ralph Northam, capped a week of political chaos ignited by racial scandals by vowing to stay in office on Friday, while the fellow Democrat in line to succeed him faced a second accusation of sexual assault.

The swirling racial scandals, involving both Northam and the state’s Democratic attorney general, and the sexual assault accusations against the lieutenant governor have stirred fears about political fallout at both the state and the national level.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax issued a statement denying both allegations and called them a “coordinated smear campaign.” He said the latest accusation, that he had raped a fellow student at Duke University in 2000, was “demonstrably false” and declared he would not step down.

Fairfax, 39, insisted earlier this week that his encounter with a woman who has accused him of forcing himself on her sexually at a hotel in Boston in 2004 was entirely consensual.

But Friday’s accusation sparked a round of calls for his resignation, and even the threat of impeachment.

If Northam, Fairfax and the attorney general, Mark Herring, are all forced to resign it would mean that the next in line to become governor would be a Republican. That possibility has tested Democrats’ resolve to show zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and racial bigotry.

It also has stirred Democrats’ concerns that political discord in Virginia, a key swing state in presidential elections, could flip back into the Republican column in the 2020 White House race.

The upheaval began with the revelation last Friday that Northam’s medical school yearbook page contained a racist photo. That was followed by separate admissions from Northam, 59, and Herring, 57, that each had darkened their faces during the 1980s to imitate black performers, a practice widely considered to be racist.

After a week hunkered down in virtual seclusion under mounting pressure to resign, Northam indicated in an email message on Friday to state employees that he planned to keep his post.

“You have placed your trust in me to lead Virginia forward – and I plan to do that,” Northam said.

In a separate statement responding to the latest allegation against him, Fairfax said he has “never forced myself on anyone ever” and demanded a “full investigation into these unsubstantiated and false allegations.”

“I will clear my good name and I have nothing to hide,” Fairfax wrote, and declared: “I will not resign.”

Fairfax had briefly seemed poised earlier this week to succeed Northam to become the second African-American governor in Virginia’s history.

But the latest allegation of rape brought a torrent of demands for Fairfax to quit, including collective calls for his ouster from all Democrats in the state House of Delegates and Senate, and the state Legislative Black Caucus.

One state House member, Democrat Patrick Hope, said on Twitter that he planned to introduce articles of impeachment for Fairfax on Monday unless he resigned before then.

The woman who made the new accusation, identified as Meredith Watson, said she was “reluctantly coming forward out of a strong sense of civic duty and her belief that those seeking or serving in public office should be of the highest character,” the law firm that is representing her said in a statement.

The firm, New Jersey-based Smith Mullin, said the alleged assault occurred in 2000. Watson is “not seeking any financial damages,” and her attorneys had notified Fairfax through his lawyers “that Ms. Watson hopes he will resign from public office,” the firm said in its statement.

The Smith Mullin statement said the alleged attack on Watson “was premeditated and aggressive,” while also saying Fairfax and Watson “were friends but never dated or had any romantic relationship.”

The law firm said Watson had “shared her account of the rape with friends in a series of emails and Facebook messages that are now in our possession.” Additionally, the firm said it possessed statements from former classmates corroborating that Watson had immediately told friends about the alleged rape.

Fairfax’s first accuser, Stanford University academic Vanessa Tyson, has alleged that Fairfax had forced her to perform oral sex in a hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Justin Fairfax, the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, drinks before opening the state’s Senate meeting during a session of the General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia, U.S, February 8, 2019. REUTERS/Jay Paul

She came forward days after the disclosure by a conservative website of a racist photo on Northam’s 1984 yearbook page of two individuals – one in blackface and the other dressed in white robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Northam had originally admitted that he was one of the people in that photo, but later said that he was not.

In an apparent effort at mending fences with Virginia’s African-American population, Northam on Friday met privately with the president and founder of the National Black Farmers Association, John Boyd Jr., in Richmond, the state capital. Boyd told Reuters the two men prayed together and “we asked for forgiveness.”

Boyd, whose group says it represents 109,000 farmers across the country, said on Twitter afterward that he pledged his support to the governor and “urged him NOT to step down.”

Reporting by Katharine Jackson in Richmond, Virginia; additional reporting by Gary Robertson in Richmond, Jonathan Allen in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler

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