Virginia Democrats struggle with interlocking crises

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s Democrats struggled to find their way out of three interlocking political crises Thursday that could bring down the party’s top elected officials and put a Republican in the governor’s chair.

With Gov. Ralph Northam’s career in peril over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook , the state’s attorney general acknowledged Wednesday that he, too, put on blackface once, when he was in college, and a woman publicly accused the lieutenant governor of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago.

While nearly the entire Democratic establishment rose up against Northam during the past week to demand he resign, party members largely withheld judgment on the two latest developments, which threaten to cause a political chain reaction that could make a GOP legislative leader the governor.

President Donald Trump accused the Democrats of a political double standard, tweeting: “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken.”

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Some clarity on the way forward could come from Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus, which was preparing a statement on the crisis. The caucus has been calling for Northam’s resignation but was silent about the latest developments.

The group’s chairman, Del. Lamont Bagby, said it needs time to sort out the series of revelations. Many Democrats are likely to follow the group’s cues.

Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, had initially predicted Northam would be unable to hang on to office for more than a week. Now, with all three top Democrats in trouble, the equation has changed, he said.

He said it is possible all three could survive just out of necessity because Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would be in line for the governor’s mansion if Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring all resigned.

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“What was Democrats’ moral clarity on Friday has given way by Wednesday to the reality that Democrats could lose power completely at the executive level,” Kidd said. He likened the situation to three sinking boats “that suddenly lash themselves together and find they can float.”

Meanwhile, the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a fiery speech at historically black Virginia Union University that the matter should be dealt with swiftly. He said Northam and Herring must step down over their blackface admissions, and the allegations against Fairfax should be investigated thoroughly.

The civil rights leader said he came to Richmond to deliver a message to the governor: “I’m not going to be your minstrel!”

Members of the crowd of 300 students, faculty, clergy and political leaders shouted in agreement and jumped to their feet several times during Sharpton’s speech.

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The governor is under fire over the discovery of a photo on his yearbook profile page of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, then denied it, but acknowledged putting shoe polish on his face for a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.

On Wednesday, Herring, who had been urging Northam to step down, admitted wearing blackface to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old at the University of Virginia in 1980. He apologized for his “callous” behavior and said the days ahead “will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve.”

Then Vanessa Tyson, a 42-year-old college professor from California, put out a detailed statement alleging Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Fairfax has repeatedly denied the allegations, saying that the encounter was consensual and that he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear.

Democrats have expressed fear that the uproar could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated Virginia legislature this year after big gains in 2017.

At the same time, the Democrats nationally have taken a hard line against misconduct in their ranks because women and minorities are a vital part of their base and they want to criticize Trump’s behavior without looking hypocritical.


Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie and Matthew Barakat contributed to this report.