By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) – Virginia Governor Ralph Northam made his first public appearance on Saturday since defying calls a week ago to step down over a racist yearbook photograph, as his potential successor, a fellow Democrat, resisted growing pressure to quit over sexual assault allegations.
Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, the state’s second-highest elected official, faces the prospect of impeachment proceedings at the hands of another Democrat next week after two women separately accused him of sexual crimes, including rape.
Fairfax, who is African-American, has denied both claims and called them a “coordinated smear campaign.” He has been as defiant as Northam in refusing to step down. The governor’s own troubles began when a racist image from his medical school yearbook went public on Feb. 1.
After staying out of sight since he faced the press on Feb. 2 to deny he was pictured in the racist photo on his yearbook page, but admitting that he had worn blackface on another occasion, Northam, 59, returned to the public eye to attend the funeral of a slain state trooper.
Before leaving for the service in Chilhowie, a small town in the state’s rural southwest corner, Northam doubled down on his determination to stay in office, pledging to promote racial reconciliation in the remaining three years of his term.
“It’s obvious from what happened this week that we still have a lot of work to do,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday. “There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity.”
He told the Post that conversations this week with black state lawmakers, who are among those calling for him to resign, helped him better understand the history and hurtfulness of blackface, which he has admitted using in 1984 to portray Michael Jackson at a dance contest.
The governor also said in the interview that he would take “a harder line” on moving the state’s Confederate monuments, which have become lightning rods for racial division, from public property into museums.
Community activists in Richmond called for a protest in the state capital on Sunday to demand new leadership.
The week’s political chaos surrounding Virginia’s top two elected officials stretched down to the second-in-line to succeed Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring, 57, who admitted that he, too, had once darkened his face to imitate a black performer.
The possibility of all three top-ranked leaders of Virginia’s executive branch having to resign raised the prospect of Democrats losing the governorship to the Republican speaker of the state House of Delegates, who is next in the line of succession.
It also has stirred Democrats’ concerns that political discord in Virginia, a key swing state in presidential elections, could flip it back into the Republican column in the 2020 White House race.
Despite the calls on Northam to step down, greater pressure was focused on Fairfax, after a state House member, Patrick Hope, declared on Friday that he would introduce articles of impeachment on Monday unless the lieutenant governor resigns.
Fairfax, 39, has said his encounter with a woman who accused him of forcing himself on her sexually in Boston in 2004 was entirely consensual. He said an accusation by a second woman that he raped her when they were both students at Duke University in 2000 was “demonstrably false” and has demanded a full investigation.
“I believe and trust that due process will provide the fairness, justice and honesty that is necessary,” Fairfax said in a statement on Saturday. “I am asking that no one rush to judgment and I am asking for there to be space in this moment for due process.”
Calls for Fairfax to step aside have come from state House and Senate Democrats, the Legislative Black Caucus, former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, Virginia’s two U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, also both Democrats, and several potential Democratic presidential hopefuls.
(Reporting by Gary Robertson in Richmond, Va.; Additional reporting by Katharine Jackson in Richmond and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Daniel Wallis)