Sex, blackface and a lottery: What’s going on in Virginia politics?

Virginia’s top three lawmakers — all Democrats — are embroiled in separate political scandals that threaten their grip on power and that could potentially hand the governorship to a Republican who won his position in a lottery.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and his attorney general, Mark Herring, have each been accused of racism after acknowledging they dressed up as black people during their college years. Both cases have led to accusations of “blackface” — a racist practice dating back to minstrel shows from the 19th century, when white people would put on black facepaint to perform as caricatures of black slaves.

The state’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, has been accused of sexual assault — an allegation he has denied. Fairfax is next in line if Northam resigns as governor, followed by Herring.

However, the scandals have sparked speculation that Kirk Cox, the Republican Speaker of the House, might take over if all three embattled Democrats bow to calls for them to resign.

Cox won the speaker’s role after a court-ordered lottery broke a tie in Virginia’s legislature, giving Republicans a 51-49 majority early last year.

Here are the scandals affecting the Democrats between him and the governor’s seat.

Governor Ralph Northam admits to wearing blackface

Northam has been clinging to his job ever since a racist photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook last week.

Northam, 59, acknowledged last weekend that he wore blackface after a conservative media website published the yearbook photo.

The image showed one man wearing blackface and another wearing the white mask and robes of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group.

This image shows Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.

The governor initially said he was in the photo without saying which costume he was wearing, then denied it a day later. But he acknowledged he once used shoe polish to blacken his face and look like Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax accused of sexual assault

Lt.-Gov. Justin Fairfax, 39, is first in line to succeed Northam if the governor gives up his seat.

However, Fairfax became embroiled in a scandal of his own this week, after a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

Fairfax’s accuser, Vanessa Tyson, described her allegations in a detailed statement on Wednesday. She accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room at the convention in Boston.

Tyson, a 42-year-old political scientist who is on a fellowship at Stanford University and who specializes in the political discourse of sexual assault, said, “I have no political motive. I am a proud Democrat.”

“Mr. Fairfax has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation,” she said. “Given his false assertions, I’m compelled to make clear what happened.”

Fairfax has repeatedly denied her allegations, saying that the encounter was consensual and that he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear.

“At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years,” he said in a statement.

Tyson said she suffered “deep humiliation and shame” and stayed quiet about the allegations as she pursued her career, but by late 2017, as the #MeToo movement took shape and after she saw an article about Fairfax’s campaign, she took her story to The Washington Post, which decided months later not to publish a story.

The National Organization for Women immediately called on Fairfax to resign, saying, “Her story is horrifying, compelling and clear as day — and we believe her.”

Attorney General Mark Herring says he dressed as a black rapper in college

Attorney General Mark Herring announced in a statement on Wednesday that he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper at a party. Herring said he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia at the time.

The 57-year-old explained his costume in a statement after rumours started circulating in the Virginia Capitol that there was photo of the attorney general in blackface.

In his statement, Herring apologized for his “callous” behaviour and said that the days ahead “will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve.”

Herring had previously called for Northam to resign over the governor’s yearbook photo scandal, calling it “indefensible” and “profoundly offensive.”

He had planned to run for governor in 2021.

Thank you, next

Cox, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House, issued a statement late Wednesday calling the allegations against Fairfax “extremely serious” and said they need a “full airing of facts.” Cox also urged Herring to “adhere to the standard he has set for others,” a nod to Herring’s previous call that Northam resign.

Cox would become governor if all three Democrats stepped down.

At the Capitol, lawmakers were dumbstruck over the day’s fast-breaking developments, with Democratic Sen. Barbara Favola saying, “I have to take a breath and think about this. This is moving way too quickly.” GOP House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said it would be “reckless” to comment. “There’s just too much flying around,” he said.

The chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, Del. Lamont Bagby, said, “We’ve got a lot to digest.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has pounced on the situation as an opportunity to attack the Democrats.

“Democrats at the top are killing the Great State of Virginia,” he tweeted on Thursday morning. “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken. Virginia will come back HOME (Republican) in 2020!”

Trump infamously declared that there were “very fine people on both sides” after a white supremacist struck and killed a counter-protester at a Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.

The president has also been accused of sexual assault, although the allegations have not been proven in court.

— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press

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