Virginia Democrats hunker down amid blackface, sex assault scandal

US

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) – Virginia’s highest-ranking Republican said on Thursday that he had never worn blackface, as the state’s Democratic governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general grappled with career-threatening race or sexual assault scandals.

State House Speaker Kirk Cox, who is third in line to be governor, was asked by reporters whether anything in his past might disqualify him from taking over the governor’s office in the extraordinary circumstances of all three Democrats resigning.

“I have never appeared in blackface,” Cox, 61, said. “As you know, I was a schoolteacher, and that’s abhorrent.”

Both Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, who is second in line to be governor, have admitted to wearing blackface while in college in the 1980s. With its historic ties to 19th-century U.S. minstrel shows in which white performers would caricature black slaves, blackface is widely seen as racist in modern America, though it remained a trope of popular television shows and movies through the 1980s.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who would take over the governor’s office should Northam step down, is facing allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman in 2004. Fairfax, 39, who is black, denies this, saying the encounter was consensual.

All three largely avoided the public and news media on Thursday.

The scandal embroiled its first Republican on Thursday, when the Virginian Pilot reported that Thomas Norment, the state Senate majority leader, was the managing editor of a 1968 yearbook from the Virginia Military Institute filled with racist images and slurs.

The newspaper said that Norment declined to discuss the yearbook. His office and his alma mater did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, accompanied by his wife Pamela Northam announces he will not resign during a news conference in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. February 2, 2019. REUTERS/ Jay Paul

Should all three Democrats resign, Cox would be elevated to governor, flipping control of a crucial swing state to Republicans in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Democrats have made significant gains in the state legislature in recent years.

State Democrats and at least five Democratic 2020 White House contenders first urged Northam, 59, to resign after a racist photo from his medical school yearbook page was made public on Friday by a conservative media website. As the scandal spread, some prominent Democrats began taking more restrained positions.

“Virginians will resolve their issues,” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the nation’s top Democratic official, told reporters on Thursday. “It’s sad because they have some very talented leaders there. But they have to have the confidence of the electorate.”

Despite Democrats’ professed commitment to root out bigotry and intolerance, Northam’s party might be motivated to rally behind him to avoid the prospect of Republicans suddenly assuming the governorship.

TRUMP WEIGHS IN

Trump, who has batted away a series of scandals involving himself and members of his administration, predicted the turmoil would help flip Virginia back to voting Republican in the 2020 elections.

“Democrats at the top are killing the Great State of Virginia,” Trump wrote on Twitter early on Thursday. “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken.”

After calling for Northam’s ouster, Attorney General Herring, 57, apologized on Wednesday for having worn blackface in 1980 to impersonate a rapper at a college party.

FILE PHOTO: Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring speaks at the Virginia Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson party fundraising dinner at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, June 26, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

Pressure on Fairfax intensified when his accuser, a college professor, released a statement alleging he had forced himself on her sexually in a hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

That allegation first surfaced on Sunday on the Big League Politics website, which two days earlier had published the photo from Northam’s yearbook of a man in blackface standing beside a masked individual dressed in the hooded robe of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.

Northam, whose term runs through 2022, initially said he was in the photograph, but backtracked a day later. Then he said he had worn blackface on another occasion in the 1980s to impersonate pop star Michael Jackson in a dance competition.

Writing and additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone, Howard Goller and James Dalgleish

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