By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Virginia Democrats pressured Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax to resign on Monday over accusations of sexual assault, which he denies, but held off on pursuing impeachment, with the Republican speaker of the state House urging restraint.
Fairfax is one of three top state Democrats engulfed by scandal this month. Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have also faced criticism after admitting they wore blackface in the 1980s.
Patrick Hope, a Democratic member of Virginia's House of Delegates, said he believed Fairfax should have resigned already after two women accused him of sexual assault but added he would not move immediately on his weekend call for impeachment proceedings.
Adding to the pressure, much of the lieutenant governor's staff have resigned since the second accuser came forward on Friday, according to his spokeswoman, Lauren Burke. They included his policy director and his scheduling director, as well as the executive director and a fundraiser at his political action committee, the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper reported.
The accusations of racist behavior or sexual assault against the three men have rattled party leadership in a swing state that likely will play a pivotal role in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Democrats have been gaining power in the Southern state in the last few election years.
Party leaders in Virginia and across the nation have called for Northam and Fairfax to resign. They have been more forgiving toward Herring, largely because he came forward on his own to admit having performed in blackface at a 1980 college party, rather than waiting for someone to accuse him.
Northam and Herring are white; Fairfax is black.
Hope, the white Democratic lawmaker who had called for Fairfax's impeachment, renewed his call for the lieutenant governor to resign while saying he was discussing whether impeachment was the best solution.
"Fairfax should have already resigned," Hope said in a statement. "The message being sent to victims of sexual assault is chilling." He said he believed Fairfax's two accusers.
The scandals may cost the Democrats their chance to take over control of the legislature in November's elections, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. He said the scandals have eroded voters' faith in the party to put forward good candidates, and any perceived racial disparities in consequences may cause further harm.
"You've got three of them in trouble, and then potentially the African-American goes and the two whites stay," he said in a telephone interview. "There could be complete justification for that, but it looks terrible."
House Speaker Kirk Cox, the Republican who would become governor if all three Democrats resigned, said it was too soon to say whether he would support impeachment.
"We need to be very careful with the high standards of impeachment," he told reporters. A majority of House members would have to vote to impeach for the proceedings to move to the Senate. A two-thirds majority in the upper chamber would be needed to remove someone from office.
Northam has insisted he would not resign over a 1984 medical school yearbook picture, which showed a person in blackface next to another wearing the robes and hood of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan. Northam denied being in that picture but admitted to dressing in blackface for a social event that same year.
Blackface traces its history to 19th-century minstrel shows that mocked African-Americans, and is seen as offensive by many Americans - though its use continued in U.S. popular culture through to the early 21st century.
About 39 percent of white Americans say it is at least sometimes acceptable to don blackface for a Halloween costume, while 37 percent believed it was never acceptable, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted mostly before Northam's admission and released on Monday. Only 18 percent of black Americans agreed it was at least sometimes acceptable, while 53 percent said it was never acceptable. (https://pewrsr.ch/2tgHl88)
Fairfax has said sexual encounters with both women were consensual.
Members of the legislature's black caucus are also seeking an investigation that does not immediately involve impeachment.
"We don't know how to do that yet," Delegate Lamont Bagby, the caucus chairman, said in an interview.
(Reporting by Gary Robertson, additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; editing by Scott Malone, Steve Orlofsky and Jonathan Oatis)