The tranquil grounds of the Virginia State Capitol belied the utter bedlam playing out inside its buildings this week as Virginia Democrats, rocked by a scandal over a racist photo and a sexual assault allegation, looked to find a way forward without the entire government of the commonwealth grinding to a halt.
The last four days have been a stress-test for Richmond. The sitting governor, Ralph Northam, is defying pressure to resign for admitting – and then later denying – that he appeared in a racist photo in his medical school yearbook. Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor who would succeed Northam should he step down, is vehemently denying an allegation of sexual assault and openly speculating that the story is being pushed by some of his Democratic colleagues.
The scandals have political implications, too, given Virginia Democrats could now head into pivotal state legislative elections in November with their two top statewide elected officials fighting allegations and controversy.
All of this is happening as members of the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates are dodging cameras and reporters as they work inside the statehouse during the busiest time of the legislative calendar.
It “is our obligation, to get things done,” said Kirk Cox, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, on Monday. “We are down to 19 days as far as the session goes, and as I said we have a lot of important work to do, more than 300 bills.”
He added: “A lot of what goes on right now is in the legislative court, so we have to do our job. … We just have to do our job, and that is what we are going to do.”
The chaos began on Friday, when lawmakers and Virginia operatives were shocked to see a racist photo that shows one person dressed in blackface and another in the KKK’s signature white hood and robes on Northam’s medical school yearbook page from 1984. But things further escalated on Saturday when, after admitting it was him on Friday, the governor held a bizarre press conference to deny that he was in the photo, admit he had dressed up in blackface once before and pledge to stay in office and fight.
The pressure on Northam to resign was swift and fierce. Before the press conference, just about every national Democrat with any sway urged him to step down. After his conversation with reporters, five of the top Democrats in Virginia who had previously not called for his resignation, broke with the governor and urged him to get out of office.
People close to Northam say this series of events has been “painfully emotional” for him. And Northam told members of his cabinet on Monday that he didn’t want to resign because he would then be painted as a “racist for life.” Northam, an adviser said, is also cognizant of the fact that no Virginia governor has ever resigned before.
The tumult grew worse on Sunday, when the same conservative blog that broke the Northam story published an allegation that Fairfax had sexually assaulted a woman at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Unlike Northam, Fairfax’s approach to the allegations were to deny them directly and repeatedly. He said the encounter was “100% consensual” and that the woman was “very much into the consensual encounter.”
CNN has not been able to reach the woman. The Washington Post reported Monday that the woman who says she was assaulted by Fairfax approached the paper in 2017. The Washington Post said they did not report the allegations because “Fairfax and the woman told different versions of what happened in the hotel room with no one else present. The Washington Post could not find anyone who could corroborate either version.” The Washington Post also reported that she had not responded to their attempts to reach her for comment.
Fairfax said the allegation was “not only from left field, it was from Planet Mars, because it didn’t happen.”
But what further dove the state of Virginia politics deeper into chaos was that Fairfax also began subtly pointing the finger at fellow Democrats when asked why the story was coming out moments before he could become the next governor of Virginia.
“Does anybody think it’s any coincidence that on the eve of potentially my being elevated that that’s when this uncorroborated smear comes out,” he asked rhetorically in the rotunda of the state capitol on Monday.
Fairfax would later tell CNN that he had “no indication” that Northam was behind the leak and a spokeswoman for the governor vehemently denied the suggestion, but it has become apparent that their relationship has broken down in recent days. The last time the two talked was before his Saturday press conference, Fairfax said, the significance of which he declined to explain.
The lieutenant governor was also pressed about whether Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney could be behind the allegations coming to light now. He did not deny the claim and called a reporter who connected the allegation to Stoney a “great reporter.”
Stoney, the 37-year-old African American mayor who could be a challenger to Fairfax should both run for governor in 2021, responded forcefully.
“This insinuation is 100% not true,” said Jim Nolan, Stoney spokesman.
That all of this is happening at a pivotal moment in Virginia’s legislative calendar has lawmakers worried the scandal engulfing Richmond could make it nearly impossible to accomplish anything.
One of those people concerned is Northam. An adviser told CNN on Monday that the governor is “weighing his options” and trying to evaluate how “effective” he would be if he continued to serve as governor.
The general assembly is in the midst of its busiest period in the legislative calendar, something known as crossover week where bills go from one side of the capitol to the other. This is a critical time because each bill must pass one side of the legislative body during this period or it will die.
The pull between work and scandal was apparent on Monday, too, when Fairfax had to duck out of an hours-long Senate session to respond to the allegations against him. After a few minutes of questions, Susan Clarke Schaar, the clerk of the state Senate, pushed her way through rows of reporters and photographers and told the lieutenant governor he was needed in the chamber.
“Excuse me,” she proclaimed, as she wiggled her way through the reporters.
For those Virginia Democrats not directly tied to the story, the swirling controversy and allegations have been met with a mix of morbid fascination and revulsion.
After a grueling day in Richmond on Monday, a veteran Virginia Democrat texted CNN video of a smoldering dumpster fire.
“I should clarify,” they said shortly after. “This isn’t a dumpster fire anymore because that would be unfair to dumpster fires.”