February 7, 2019 / 11:04 AM / 16 days ago

Trump stokes Democrats' Virginia turmoil as scandal snares Republican

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - A firestorm of scandals embroiling Virginia’s governor and two fellow Democrats at the top of the state’s executive branch spread to the Republican leader of the state Senate on Thursday as U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in to stoke the political crisis.

Trump, who has weathered a wide range of scandals involving himself and members of his administration, predicted the turmoil in Virginia over racially offensive behavior and alleged sexual assault would help flip the state back into the Republican column in the 2020 presidential elections.

Governor Ralph Northam and the state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, both of whom are white, have apologized for separate incidents during the 1980s in which they darkened their faces to imitate black performers, while Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, an African-American, stands accused of forcing himself sexually on a woman 14 years ago. He insists the encounter with the woman was consensual.

The three men, all Democrats who ran on the same ticket during Virginia’s last election in 2017, continued to largely avoid the public and news media on Thursday.

The improbable scenario of the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general all forced by scandal to resign has raised the prospect of the Democrats losing the governorship to a Republican - Kirk Cox, who as speaker of the House of Delegates is third in the line of succession under the state’s constitution.

The fallout has been most intense for Northam, a former U.S. Army doctor whose medical school yearbook page was revealed to show a photo of one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam, 59, initially said he was one of the two individuals in the photo, then changed his story to say neither figure was him.

POSSIBLE REDEMPTION

Late on Thursday, the state’s congressional delegation released a statement indicating a consensus of forgiveness might be emerging around Herring. He was described as having “earnestly reached out to each of us to apologize and express his deep remorse” and to be holding “in-depth discussions with leaders and others in Virginia.”

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

The delegation - consisting of the state’s two U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and seven U.S. representatives - repeated its call for Northam to resign, and said the allegations against Fairfax “need to be taken very seriously,” though it stopped short of demanding a formal investigation.

Trump, who previously called for Northam’s resignation, commented on the widening scandal again on Twitter.

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

Trump’s tweet came hours before state Senate majority leader Tommy Norment confronted an unflattering disclosure from his own past - acknowledging a media report that he was managing editor of the 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook, which is awash with racist images and slurs.

Legislators in Richmond, the state capital, continued to go about their business amid hushed speculation that more politically damaging personal history would be exposed.

The widening upheaval has stirred an outcry across partisan lines in Virginia, which in many ways is still grappling with a history of slavery and racial segregation and its legacy as the heart of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

Fairfax, 39 - who is first in line to succeed Northam and would thus become only the second African-American to lead the state - had been noncommittal about whether he thought Northam should resign before coming under a cloud himself. Herring, 57, who previously called for the governor to quit, is second in line to replace the governor and has expressed gubernatorial ambitions of his own.

Cox, 61, the House speaker, asked by reporters on Thursday whether anything in his past might disqualify him from the governorship, said: “I have never appeared in blackface.”

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

Norment, the Senate majority leader, in a statement issued after The Virginia-Pilot newspaper first reported on his role in the yearbook that contained racist images and slurs, condemned blackface as “abhorrent in our society,” but stopped short of apologizing for the racist content published in the yearbook he helped oversee.

“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,” Norment wrote, adding that he did not appear in or take any of the photos in question. Norment also said he had supported the academy’s racial integration that year.

Reporting by Gary Robertson in Richmond, Va., Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Jonathan Allen and Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone, Lisa Shumakerand Leslie Adler

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