As Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was engulfed in scandal a week ago over a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page, a consensus grew among his fellow Democrats: He won’t last the weekend.
Protesters organized, reporters assembled and Democrats called for his ouster.
And then nothing happened.
A week later, Northam’s hold on his job is strengthening as two bombshell sexual assault allegations have left Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — also a Democrat, and the man who would have stepped in should Northam have resigned — the most endangered politician in Virginia, with calls for his resignation mounting and possible impeachment hanging over him.
Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted earlier in the week that he, too, had dressed in blackface in the 1980s, has laid low for the week, calling top Virginia Democrats from behind closed doors to offer emotional apologies as a way to move past the controversy.
The latest development — a second woman, Meredith Watson, accusing Fairfax of rape Friday afternoon — capped an extraordinary week where the fortunes of Democrats’ top three elected officials in Virginia ebbed and flowed as demoralized party operatives, enraged elected officials and dumbfounded state legislators attempted to make sense of how their once-prosperous party was now in a smoldering heap.
Fairfax has vehemently denied both allegations against him and told anyone who would listen on Friday that he believes he will be able to move past this scandal by telling his story.
But Watson’s allegations proved that most Virginia Democrats aren’t interested in listening to his account.
“Given recent developments, I believe that it is best for the Commonwealth of Virginia if Justin Fairfax dealt with these accusations as a private citizen,” said US Rep. Don McEachin, one of the most prominent African-American Democrats in Virginia. “He can no longer serve us as the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.”
That was echoed by a slew of other top Democrats, including the caucuses in both of Virginia’s legislative chambers and a group of black lawmakers who had held back on calling for Fairfax to step aside.
“In light of the most recent sexual assault allegations against Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus believe it is best for Lt. Governor Fairfax to step down from his position,” the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said in a statement.
They added, “While we believe that anyone accused of such a grievous and harmful act must receive the due process prescribed by the Constitution, we can’t see it in the best interest of the Commonwealth of Virginia for the Lieutenant Governor to remain in his role.”
Earlier in the night, the Democrats in the Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate also had called on Fairfax to resign.
And former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe bluntly said, after Watson told her story in a statement from her law office, that Fairfax had to leave.
“The allegations against Justin Fairfax are serious and credible,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “It is clear to me that he can no longer effectively serve the people of Virginia as Lieutenant Governor. I call for his immediate resignation.”
The pressure on Fairfax, who responded to Watson by saying he would not resign, and relative lack of pressure on Northam would have been almost unthinkable a week earlier, when Fairfax looked bound to be the nation’s only black governor and Northam looked to be headed for the door.
Earlier in the week, Northam, Fairfax and Herring were in a pseudo-standoff, waiting for news to break on the others to help boost their own standing and tighten their holds on their respective jobs. None of the lawmakers wanted to make the first move, and all operated behind the scenes to boost their own favor.
After his bizarre news conference last Saturday, where he flip-flopped on whether he was in the racist yearbook photo but admitted to dressing in blackface at another time, Northam huddled with top aides in Virginia’s executive mansion. He began his rehabilitation by calling prominent African-American activists and then inviting two leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to meet with him about race, inequality and his path forward.
He built on that by hiring an African-American crisis communicator and planning to spend the coming months of his administration focused on issues of race.
Fairfax was far more public, shuttling in and out of the Virginia state Capitol to oversee the state Senate during one of the busiest times of the year for the deliberative body. Initially, Fairfax’s strategy was to aggressively refute the first allegation against him, speaking with reporters twice on the day it broke. That openness dissipated as the week dragged on, as he rushed through the hallways of the Capitol and avoided questions on the graphic allegations against him.
Fairfax ended the week with his law firm — Morrison & Foerster, of which he is a partner — telling employees that the lieutenant governor is taking a leave of absence from the firm, according to an internal memo obtained by CNN. The memo states the firm has retained outside counsel to conduct an investigation and that Fairfax “has agreed to cooperate with the firm’s investigation.”
Herring learned from both Northam and Fairfax. Instead of letting reporters break the news on his history with blackface, the attorney general admitted to it in a statement before anyone broke the story. He then completely shut out the press, ran from reporters as he left his office and did not answer any questions. He called top Virginia Democrats, at times nearly in tears, to apologize for the controversy and looked to move on by staying out of the limelight.
Virginia Democrats have watched in horror as the three strategies play out.
After years of investment and work to turn the state into a blue enclave in the South, some worried that the controversies of three men had lit that work on fire and set the party back significantly.
“If they are all three there around the next statewide elections, it is really problematic,” the Democrat said. “I think that is tough to explain to voters.”
The operative added: “I think where we are today doesn’t cause permanent damage, but if they stick around then it could.”