The latest: Delegate backs off immediate impeachment for Fairfax; Northam reads ‘Roots’

By: - February 9, 2019 1:57 pm

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax faces two allegations of sexual assault and Gov. Ralph Northam has admitted to wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume after a racist yearbook photo was discovered on his yearbook page.

A second allegation of sexual assault. Widespread calls for resignation. A threat of immediate impeachment from a member of his own party that was later withdrawn.

Just nine days ago, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax thought he might be the next governor after a racist photo was discovered on Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page – a potentially poetic turn of events, given Fairfax’s status as the second African-American elected to statewide office in Virginia.

This week, Fairfax’s political future appears far more imperiled than the man he might have succeeded.

Meanwhile, Northam has dug in, made clear he won’t resign, and set about rehabilitating his image by, among other things, tweeting a photo of a Friday meeting with an advocate for black farmers and publicizing the fact that he’s reading “Roots,” a seminal book that traces the author’s ancestry from Africa to enslavement in the United States.

That Fairfax, a black man, is facing possible impeachment proceedings while Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both white, have admitted to past racist conduct and plan to stay in office, puts the Democrats in a tenuous political position.

“To show a firm grasp of the obvious, the optics would be difficult and the substance would be difficult,” Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, told The New York Times.

What we know about Fairfax

Fairfax spent the week denying an allegation that he forced a woman to perform oral sex at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His peers took a wait-and-see approach, calling for a full vetting of the facts. That changed late Friday when a second woman came forward with a similar allegation.

The first allegation: Vanessa Tyson, a California college professor, said in a statement Fairfax assaulted her in a hotel room during an encounter that began with consensual kissing but ended with him physically forcing her face onto his crotch.

The alleged assault is still within the 15-year statute of limitations in Massachusetts, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports her legal team is willing to participate in an investigation. A spokesman for the relevant district attorney declined to comment, telling the Times-Dispatch that “at this stage there are no charges related to that incident.”

The second allegation: Meredith Watson says Fairfax raped her in 2000 when they were both students at Duke in an attack similar to Tyson’s allegation. She said in a statement that she was moved to come 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.”

Unlike Tyson, Watson told former classmates about the alleged attack right after she said it happened. Kaneedreck Adams told The Washington Post that Watson lived across the hall from her at the time of the attack and entered her room in tears. “She said she couldn’t speak, but she was trying to get up and he kept pushing her down,” Adams told The Post. “She said he knew that she didn’t like what was happening, but he kept pushing her down.”

Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax speaks to reporters Monday in the Capitol in the wake of a sexual assault allegation that surfaced against him. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Fairfax’s denials: He vigorously contests both accounts, insisting his encounter with Tyson was consensual and calling Adam’s allegations “demonstrably false.”

“I have never forced myself on anyone,” he said.

In a statement he demanded “a full investigation into these unsubstantiated and false allegations. Such an investigation will confirm my account because I am telling the truth … It is obvious that a vicious and coordinated smear campaign is being orchestrated against me.

“I will not resign.”

Democrats call for Fairfax to resign: After the first allegation came out, Democrats and affiliated groups said they were withholding judgement until the claims could be investigated. The second allegation apparently made that position untenable and a wave of statements calling for him to step down began to flow.

Among those calling for Fairfax to resign: The Democratic Party of Virginia, the Virginia House and Senate Democratic caucuses, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and most of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation.

Scott and Warner hedge: The two remaining members, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott and Sen. Mark Warner, hedged their statements.

“If either is found to be true — and there appears to be significant corroborating evidence – then the lieutenant governor should resign immediately,” Scott said in a tweet.

Likewise, Warner said Fairfax should remove himself from office if the allegations are “accurate.”

GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, is among those who have called for Fairfax’s resignation.

“I deeply respect the principle of due process and believe that the gravity of this situation demands prudence and deliberation, but the lieutenant governor has clearly lost the trust and confidence of the people of Virginia,” Cox said in a statement.

Republicans control both chambers of the General Assembly.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides over the Senate at the Virginia State Capitol, Feb. 7, 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. Virginia state politics are in a state of upheaval, with Gov. Ralph Northam and State Attorney General Mark Herring both admitting to past uses of blackface and Fairffax accused of sexual assault. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A threat of impeachment: One statehouse Democrat went further, saying Friday night he’ll try to begin impeachment proceedings against Fairfax on Monday.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, had the paperwork drafted: “He needs to resign immediately. Should the lt. governor fail to do so, on Monday I intend to introduce articles of impeachment on Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. …

“There’s no question that violent sexual assault clearly qualifies as a high crime.”

If Fairfax does resign, the governor would appoint a replacement until a special election could be held, the Times-Dispatch reports.

On Monday, though, the Associated Press reported that Hope was backing off his plan to immediately begin impeachment proceedings.

“Yesterday I sent draft language to my colleagues on the first step of an impeachment action regarding the lt. governor,” Hope tweeted. “There has been an enormous amount of sincere and thoughtful feedback which has led to additional conversations that need to take place before anything is filed.”

Both accusers say they would testify: “Ms. Watson stands ready, although it will be painful, to tell the Virginia Legislature what Mr. Fairfax did to her when she was 20 years old,” said her lawyers in a statement, according to The Virginian-Pilot. Likewise, Tyson’s representatives told the paper she is “prepared to testify at impeachment proceedings and to cooperate with law enforcement in any investigation.”

Northam attempts rehabilitation

Just 15 minutes after news of a second sexual assault allegation broke, Northam made clear in a letter to all state employees that he wouldn’t resign.

According to multiple reports, the governor has brought on a crisis communications team to help guide him through an attempted rehabilitation.

A private meeting with a black farmer: Northam broke his silence earlier in the day, tweeting about his own controversy for the first time since Friday, when he admitted appearing in a racist yearbook photo, something he then denied during a widely-mocked press conference the next day in which he admitted to wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume.

Northam shared a message of support from John W. Boyd, Jr., an advocate for black farmers, who met with the governor earlier in the day and wrote “I pledged my support and urged him NOT to step down. #redemption.”

Reading assignments and a new focus: Northam told The Washington Post in an exclusive interview Saturday that he’ll focus the remainder of his term on racial reconciliation and has directed his cabinet secretaries to develop proposals to address issues of inequity.

“It’s obvious from what happened this week that we still have a lot of work to do. There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity,” he told The Post. “There are ongoing inequities to access to things like education, health care, mortgages, capital, entre­pre­neur­ship. And so this has been a real, I think, an awakening for Virginia. It has really raised the level of awareness for racial issues in Virginia. And so we’re ready to learn from our mistakes.”

His aides have also given him some reading assignments, according to BuzzFeed News: “He’s begun to read Alex Haley’s ‘Roots,’ and ‘The Case for Reparations,’ the seminal essay in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates,” according to BuzzFeed.

The left-handed defense: Another tidbit from that BuzzFeed story — Northam is left- handed and has noted to his advisers that the two people in the yearbook photo wearing blackface and KKK robes are holding their beers in their right hands. “Northam told advisers, he’d been so awkward with his right hand that he had to force himself to hold the scalpel with it.”

During a press conference at the Governor’s Mansion on Saturday, Gov. Ralph Northam denied appearing in a KKK yearbook photo but admitted to moonwalking in blackface. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A letter to state employees: In his email to state employees, Northam apologized for a “painful week” and said he was “deeply sorry for causing this distraction.”

But he made clear he wouldn’t resign, despite the near unanimous calls for his resignation, which have been renewed by groups at various points throughout the week.

“I want to assure you that the business of the commonwealth and our duty as public servants will continue,” he wrote. “You are doing that work well and I know that will not change. You have placed your trust in me to lead Virginia forward — and I plan to do that.”

A (rocky?) TV interview: News outlets had reported Northam was negotiating a nationally televised interview they hoped would humanize him and, on Sunday morning, CBS published portions of it, one of which immediately drew backlash online. Northam described the first Africans arrival in Virginia 400 years ago as “indentured servants.”

“Also known as slavery,” said host Gayle King.

Whether those men and women are best described as indentured servants or slaves is a point of historical debate Northam probably didn’t intend to wade into under the circumstances, but historians immediately weighed in online.

The full interview is scheduled to air Monday.

A poll: A Washington Post poll published Sunday found Virginians are split on whether Northam should resign, with 47 percent of those surveyed saying he should step down and 47 percent saying he should remain in office.

Of black voters surveyed, 37 percent said he should resign while a majority, 58 percent, said he shouldn’t. Those results in particular have drawn varying interpretation, with some viewing them as a positive for Northam and others, well, not so much.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.