Virginia Democrats try to thread the needle on crisis

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Confronted with a triple threat to the party's top ranks, Virginia Democrats are trying to thread the needle, demanding anew that Gov. Ralph Northam resign but giving the benefit of the doubt — for the time being — to the lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Key Democratic groups began weighing in late Thursday after the widening crisis rendered them practically speechless for a day. Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have admitted wearing blackface as young men in the 1980s, while Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is accused of sexually assaulting a woman 15 years ago, an allegation he denies.

"We'll have our say; I'm confident in the truth," Fairfax said Friday when asked what message he had for Virginia. He made the remarks to journalists lining a Capitol hallway as he went to preside over the state Senate.

The previous night, the Virginia legislature's Black Caucus issued a statement acknowledging the seriousness of all three controversies but added: "Our responses to each, however, must be based on their individual facts and circumstances."

Although the Democratic Party has taken almost a zero-tolerance approach to misconduct among its members in this #MeToo era, a housecleaning in Virginia could be costly: If all three Democrats resigned, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would become governor.

In a positive sign for Northam, a lawmaker from Virginia's Democratic-leaning D.C. suburbs said Friday he won't call on the besieged governor to resign.

"I will not request the Governor's resignation," State Sen. Chap Petersen, a Democrat, said in a statement. "Nor will I request any other official to resign until it is obvious that they have committed a crime in office or their ability to serve is irredeemably compromised."

Also Friday, Northam retweeted a photo of himself talking with the leader of a Virginia-based national advocacy group for black farmers, thanking him for the meeting. John W. Boyd Jr., the president of the National Black Farmers Association, said in his own tweet that he had pledged Northam his support "and urged him NOT to step down."

However, other Democrats maintained their condemnation of Northam. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a 2020 presidential hopeful, said Friday that he still thinks Northam should step down.

"I think it dredges up very hurtful, painful things from the past. ... I think he's betrayed the public trust, and he should resign," Booker said during an appearance in Iowa.

In their statements Thursday, the Black Caucus and Democratic congressional delegation also reiterated their calls for the governor to step down, and the state House Democrats — who also previously called for Northam's resignation — said they remain disappointed in him.

As for Herring, the congressional delegation cited his personal apologies and "in-depth discussions" with Virginia leaders in explaining why they were responding differently to his blackface admission.

"The attorney general has earnestly reached out to each of us to apologize and express his deep remorse," said a statement by Virginia's two U.S. senators and seven Democratic members of Congress.

Regarding the accusation against Fairfax, the black lawmakers said the sexual assault allegation against him must be "thoroughly investigated by the appropriate agencies." The House Democrats said they would "continue to monitor" the accusation, while the congressional delegation said it respects "the right of women to come forward and be heard."

If Fairfax ascends to the top office, he would be Virginia's second black governor.

A California college professor has said Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him at a hotel in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Fairfax has cast the allegations as a political smear.

The district attorney's office in Boston declined to say whether it is investigating. Under Massachusetts law, the statute of limitations is 15 years for rape and several related crimes, an interval that would expire this summer for the woman's accusation.

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

Northam, 59, has been under fire for a week over a photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook that showed someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

He at first admitted he was in the picture, then denied it a day later, but acknowledged he once blackened his face with shoe polish to imitate Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984.

His critics have faulted him for both his handling of the picture and his blackface admission.

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

Statement from the Republican Party of Virginia on Feb. 8:

Both Ralph Northam and Mark Herring have admitted to wearing blackface. There is no doubt that these two took part in that racist activity. However, while the RPV remains steadfast in its call for Northam and Herring to resign, the left has seemingly given Mark Herring a hall pass.

If this were any other elected position in the Commonwealth, Virginia Democrats would be rightfully calling for a resignation. The Democrats have sacrificed their morals and values for political expediency. It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Virginia that the Democrats would put politics and power over principle and not justifiably call for Herring to resign.

"What is the difference between Governor Northam's blackface and AG Herring's," said RPV Chairman Jack Wilson. "If there is no difference, shouldn't Democrats call for both to resign? It is likely that at the time of Northam's scandal, Democrats assumed that, no matter what, they would still have a Democrat governor. Now that their stranglehold on the state government is in jeopardy, they're backing off of Herring for political reasons."

Statement from Senate Democrats on Feb. 8:

"The events that unfolded over the past week are deeply upsetting. There is no place in our Commonwealth for racism or sexual assault and as more information comes to light we are committed to holding those in power accountable for their actions.

"Even as our faith in our executive leaders has been shaken, we are determined to continue our fight in the Senate for a better Virginia, one that represents our shared values of equity, inclusion, and opportunity for all. Yet, we know that no single action or piece of legislation can serve as the necessary reconciliation that these times demand.

"Our Commonwealth has a painful and regretful history, one whose reach extends much further than many of us may have grasped. Let us be clear: we condemn the racist use of blackface and treat these revelations with profound disappointment and concern. We believe, too, that any instance of sexual assault is abhorrent and that all allegations deserve to be heard and treated seriously. In the wake of these many hurtful and developing stories, we are hopeful that a broader conversation can take place so that change can come.

"As a caucus, as a party, and as Virginians -- our diversity is our strength. As we continue our work here in Richmond for our constituents, we hope, in partnership with our colleagues in the Legislative Black Caucus, to step up and help lead this conversation as much as we listen. This weekend we will return to our districts and begin this dialogue, but that can only be the first step to reconciling our past with the bright future we envision as Democrats. As we acknowledge this, we also know that the road is long. We understand it will not be our words that will lead us through these tough times, but our actions that will lift up the voices that for far too long have been silenced."

Statement of Virginia Congressional Delegation:

“Like other Virginians, we have been devastated by these horrible developments. We are brokenhearted that the actions of Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring have reopened old wounds left by Virginia’s long history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and systemic racism. There’s no question that Virginians’ faith in their government and leaders has understandably been deeply shaken.

“We have each publicly called for Governor Northam to resign.

“Yesterday, we were shocked and saddened to learn of the incident in the Attorney General’s past. The Attorney General has earnestly reached out to each of us to apologize and express his deep remorse. We understand that he is currently engaged in in-depth discussions with leaders and others in Virginia. The Attorney General must continue those conversations, and stand ready to answer questions from the public if he is to regain their trust.

“We are deeply disturbed by the account detailing the alleged actions of Lieutenant Governor Fairfax. We believe these allegations need to be taken very seriously, and we respect the right of women to come forward and be heard.

“We will continue in dialogue with one another and our constituents in the coming days, and evaluate additional information as it comes to light.”

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Associated Press writers Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston and Thomas Beaumont in Mason City, Iowa, contributed to this report.