Three powerful political groups in Virginia — black lawmakers, House Democrats and the U.S. Congressional delegation — have stepped up pressure on Gov. Ralph Northam to resign over a blackface controversy, but stopped short of demanding the immediate ouster of the lieutenant governor and attorney general in concurrent scandals that have embroiled the state.
The measured approach could slow the sobering prospects for Democrats that the top three executive positions might be vacated, opening the way for the House speaker, a Republican, to take over the top job.
The political crisis engulfing the state began last week with the report that Northam's page on his 1984 medical school yearbook featured a photo of a man in blackface standing next to another man wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.
After initially suggesting that he was in the picture, he backtracked the next day and denied it, rejecting growing calls that he step down. Northam did, however, admit donning blackface for a Michael Jackson dance party more than 30 years ago.
The governor has not appeared publicly since a weekend news conference in which he shifted gears and made it clear he would not resign.
The 59-year-old Democrat has hired a crisis communications firm, used underground tunnels at the Capitol to stay out of sight and unveiled no strategy for how he might govern effectively over the next three years, the Associated Press reports.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would succeed Northam in the event over a vacancy in the top job, quickly found himself the subject of accusations of sexual assault by a former colleague at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. Fairfax strongly denied the charges made by Vanessa Tyson, a political science professor at Scripps College in California.
"What began as consensual kissing quickly turned into sexual assault," she said in the statement issued by her lawyers Wednesday. She said he physically forced her to perform oral sex.
Tyson said she decided to step forward following the reports that Fairfax might be ascending to the governorship.
Fairfax said the accusations against him are false and that the entire encounter was consensual.
Adding to Virginia's firestorm, Attorney General Mark Herring, third in line for the governorship, admitted that he had worn blackface in college in the 1980s.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus weighed in on Thursday night with a statement reiterating its call that Northam step down, but stopping short of demanding the ouster of the next two officials. The group said the sexual assault allegation against Fairfax, who is African American, should be "thoroughly investigated," but did not demand he step down.
As for Herring, the black caucus said it appreciated the attorney general's honesty in volunteering that he had worn blackface in college, but said it is waiting for him to act further to "reassure" the state that he is fit to lead.
At a gathering of black leaders Thursday at Virginian Union, the state's oldest historically black college, Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and television pundit, demanded that both Northam and Herring resign, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
“If you sin, you must pay for the sin,” Sharpton said. “Blackface represents a deeper problem where people felt they could dehumanize and humiliate people based on their inferiority."
“When we’re reacting to blackface, we’re not reacting to the act. We’re reacting to what the act represents,” Sharpton added.
Speculation that all 3 statewide VA Dem officeholders will resign is overwrought. One or more will survive. VA Dems won in an anti-Trump landslide in 2017. They’re not going to turn government over to a pro-Trump GOP House Speaker, who’s next-in-line to be Governor.— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) February 7, 2019
Virginia House Democrats echoed the appeals by the black lawmakers, calling for Northam's ouster but not for Fairfax or Herring to step down. They said they wanted to listen to their constituents over the weekend before taking further action.
"Much of the discussion has, rightfully, centered around who we are as Democrats as we continue to stand against racism and against sexual assault. We respect all survivors and believe they should be fully heard," the House Democrats' statement said. "However, this is not a partisan problem, but a problem for all Virginians and all Americans."
One rare exception among Virginia Democrats was State Sen. Chap Petersen, who issued a statement Friday saying he would not call for the governor's resignation following a week of discussions with voters on the issue.
In other responses, the Democratic members of Virginia's Congressional delegation called for an investigation into the allegations against Fairfax. They also said they were "shocked and saddened" to learn that Herring wore blackface in college, but noted that he had expressed "deep remorse." They stressed that he must continue to have "in-depth discussions" if he is to regain the public's trust.
The delegation took no joint position on the governor, but noted, "We have each publicly called for Governor Northam to resign."
The statement was released by U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine and U.S. representatives Bobby Scott, Gerry Connolly, Don Beyer, Donald McEachin, Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton.
The measured response by all three groups appeared to reflect the real-world impact of a triple resignation by the top three executives, all Democrats, in a state that has only recently moved from red to blue politically.
Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Thursday that he does not expect all three Democrats to walk away from their jobs.
"Speculation that all 3 statewide VA Dem officeholders will resign is overwrought," Sabato said on Twitter. "One or more will survive. VA Dems won in an anti-Trump landslide in 2017. They’re not going to turn government over to a pro-Trump GOP House Speaker."
Adding to the toxic political stew, Tommy Norment, state Senate majority leader, a Republican, was drawn into the swirling controversies. A 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook overseen by Norment features a host of racist photos and slurs, including blackface, the Virginian-Pilot reported.
Norment declined to comment on the yearbook to the newspaper but later released a statement through his spokesman that said:
“The use of blackface is abhorrent in our society and I emphatically condemn it. As one of seven working on a 359-page yearbook, I cannot endorse or associate myself with every photo, entry or word on each page. However, I am not in any of the photos referenced on pages 82 or 122, nor did I take any of the photos in question.
“As my comment on Page 236 notes, I supported the integration of VMI. And in 1997, I led the effort to have my alma mater include women for the first time.”
Help us shed light on racism at colleges across the country: Do you remember an event at your alma mater that seems extra weird now? Found blackface pictures in your own yearbook? DM or email me at email@example.com— Brett Murphy (@BrettMmurphy) February 8, 2019
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Virginia's black caucus, House Dems, in go-slow move, call for Ralph Northam's ouster. But governor stays silent