Capitol chaos blowing over?

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 2/15/2019, 6 a.m.
The storm over the State Capitol appears to be easing up — for now.

The storm over the State Capitol appears to be easing up — for now.


Governor Northam


Lt. Governor Fairfax


Attorney General Herring

Whatever the future fallout, none of Virginia’s top three officials is leaving office. Calls for impeachment have been silenced and the General Assembly is back to being fully engaged in developing legislation.

Indeed, the emergence of a second woman accusing Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax of sexual assault nearly 20 years ago has begun to overshadow the blackface incidents from the 1980s involving Gov. Ralph S. Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring.

Lt. Gov. Fairfax has stoutly denied any wrongdoing, describing the allegations as false and calling for a complete independent investigation.

The 39-year-old lieutenant governor has been hit hardest. Once a gubernatorial prospect, his fundraising is shut down, most of the staff of his political action committee and his small public office have quit. He has been removed from the chairmanship of the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association and put on a leave of absence from the Washington law firm where he is a partner.

Gov. Northam, who initially took the heat, has set the tone for his fellow Democratic top office holders by refusing to step down from office. Mr. Herring has received the least attention after apologizing last week for wearing blackface to portray rapper Kurtis Blow at a party in 1980 while a student at the University of Virginia.

Surprising critics with his fortitude and resolve, Gov. Northam quickly rejected the bipartisan clamor to leave office that began resounding after a conservative political blog on Feb. 1 released a 1984 photo appearing on Gov. Northam’s medical school yearbook page that showed two people, one in blackface and one in a KKK robe and hood.

The governor is making his stance stick as his cabinet, aides and state employees stay with him.

In an interview Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Gov. Northam showed he has not buckled under the criticism and will serve out his term that ends in January 2022.

He acknowledged having a rough time since the photo went viral, particularly after he first apologized and then went before a bank of national, state and local reporters to deny that he was neither of the people in the photo. But he admitted at the Feb. 2 news conference that he wore blackface as Michael Jackson in a 1984 dance competition in San Antonio, Texas, where he had gone to serve in the Army Medical Corps.

The governor, though, insisted on the Sunday morning news program that he is the right person at this time.

“Virginia needs someone that can heal. There’s no better person to do that than a doctor,” Gov. Northam said. “Virginia needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere.”

His cabinet and his staff have stuck with him, and there are growing signs publicly and privately that a majority of people, particularly in the African-American community, back his decision to stay.

For example, a small group of African-American clergy and leaders of political groups went to the Capitol on Monday to show their support for the governor remaining in office.

While dozens of protesters from Richmond to Charlottesville gathered Wednesday evening outside the Capitol to call for a “Ralph Must Resign” protest, in barbershops and beauty salons around Richmond, there is little such talk.

“We are all sinners,” said James E. Henson Jr., a printing business owner, who also sees no need for the governor to resign. “We all are in need of forgiveness.”

Already, some of Gov. Northam’s critics are discussing how to work with him, including the 21-member Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. Its chairman, Henrico County Delegate Lamont Bagby, has begun talking about the Caucus working with the governor without rescinding its resignation call.

Mr. Herring, who issued a public statement about his past, has largely become the forgotten man. He is planning to run for governor in 2021, and for now has largely kept out of sight and mostly been left unscathed.

Lt. Gov. Fairfax’s troubles began Feb. 3, when the conservative political blog Big League Politics, which had sent out the explosive blackface photo involving Gov. Northam, released a screenshot of a Facebook post in which California university professor Vanessa Tyson alleged that the lieutenant governor assaulted her in 2004 when they both attended the Democratic National Convention.

Lt. Gov. Fairfax was dealing with Dr. Tyson’s allegation when he was hit with a second accusation Friday, Feb. 8, this time from Meredith Watson, a former student at Duke University, who publicly alleged that he raped her in 2000 while they were both undergraduates.

Lt. Gov. Fairfax has repeatedly stated that the sexual encounters with both women were consensual.

While the Virginia legislature has not come up with a way yet to deal with the information, Lt. Gov. Fairfax could face legal problems if prosecutors in Boston or in Durham, N.C., investigate and believe they could make a case. There is no statute of limitations on rape in North Carolina and the statute of limitations has not expired in Massachusetts.

At this point, most people, including African-Americans, have called for no rush to judgment of Lt. Gov. Fairfax, instead urging that both women and the lieutenant governor be given the opportunity to tell their stories during an investigation and reminding that people are considered innocent until proven guilty.

On Wednesday, reports began surfacing that Dr. Tyson planned to speak with Boston prosecutors.

Statement on behalf of Meredith Watson, second Fairfax accuser Released Friday, Feb. 8

We serve as counsel for Meredith Watson, who was raped by Justin Fairfax in 2000 while they were students at Duke University. Mr. Fairfax’s attack was premeditated and aggressive. The two were friends but never dated or had any romantic relationship.

Ms. Watson shared her account of the rape with friends in a series of emails and Facebook messages that are now in our possession. Additionally, we have statements from former classmates corroborating that Ms. Watson immediately told friends that Mr. Fairfax had raped her.

Ms. Watson was upset to learn that Mr. Fairfax raped at least one other woman after he attacked her. The details of Ms. Watson’s attack are similar to those described by Dr. Vanessa Tyson.

At this time, Ms. Watson is reluctantly coming forward out of a strong sense of civic duty and her belief that those seeking or serving in public office should be of highest character. She has no interest in becoming a media personality or reliving the trauma that has greatly affected her life. Similarly, she is not seeking any financial damages.

On behalf of our client, we have notified Justin Fairfax through his attorneys that Ms. Watson hopes he will resign from public office.

Nancy Erika Smith, attorney for Meredith Watson

Statement from Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax Released Saturday, Feb. 9

This has been a devastating week for my family. It has been an especially devastating time for the great Commonwealth of Virginia.

I say again without reservation: I did not sexually assault or rape Meredith Watson, Vanessa Tyson or anyone else. Our American values don’t just work when it’s convenient — they must be applied at the most difficult of times.

As an officer of the court and a former federal prosecutor, I have dedicated my life to the law and due process. Consequently, I call on all appropriate and impartial investigatory authorities, including the FBI, to investigate fully and thoroughly the allegations against me by Ms. Watson and Dr. Tyson. I ask that all three of us be respected during this process.

The one thing I want to make abundantly clear is that in both situations I knew at the time, and I know today, that the interactions were consensual.

I heard from Dr. Tyson after the 2004 Convention, and she never said or otherwise indicated that our interaction was not consensual or caused her any discomfort.

Regarding Ms. Watson, I knew Ms. Watson in college both before and after the encounter, and she never said to me that our interaction was not consensual or caused her any discomfort.

What I have just expressed is the truth. I want to stand here in that truth and restate that my truth, as well as the truth of Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson, should be fully investigated and thoroughly assessed. I believe and trust that due process will provide the fairness, justice and honesty that is necessary. I am asking that no one rush to judgment and I am asking for there to be space in this moment for due process.