Virginia governor appears at funeral as pressure grows on his No. 2

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

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, faced growing pressure 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 has denied both claims and called them a "coordinated smear campaign." He has been as defiant as Northam in refusing to step down. Northam'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 a blatantly 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 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.

The week's political chaos surrounding the state'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 insisted his encounter with a woman who has 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 will clear my good name and I have nothing to hide," Fairfax said in a statement. "I will not resign."

Calls for Fairfax, who is African-American, 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 Peter Szekely and Jonathan Allen in New York, Katharine Jackson in Richmond, and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler)