When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam admitted he appeared in a racist yearbook photo from the 1980s, several high-profile Democrats quickly called for the once popular Virginia Democrat to resign.
Now, Democrats are facing two more scandals rocking top members of their party in the state: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has been accused by a college professor of sexual assault and Attorney General Mark Herring is reeling after he admitted that he appeared in blackface at a 1980 party. Prominent Democrats, including those running or thinking about running for president in 2020, have responded to these scandals with relative caution.
Many Democrats have called for an investigation into Fairfax for what they view as a credible allegation made against him but have stopped short of calling for a resignation. Vanessa Tyson said Wednesday that Fairfax sexually assaulted her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Fairfax has vehemently denied the allegation.
Democrats’ approach to the scandal highlights a tension inside a Democratic Party that has focused on combating gender inequality and tied itself to the #MeToo movement. Fairfax is viewed as a rising star within the party, and many Democrats were excited at the prospect of him becoming the nation’s only black governor in the event Northam stepped down.
And many Democrats have yet to address Herring, a contrast to the so far unheeded calls for Northam to resign.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, along with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg all called on Northam to step down within roughly 24 hours of the governor admitting he was in the racist yearbook photo under his name that featured a person in blackface and another person in a KKK robe and hood. (Northam later denied he was in the photo.)
The group of senators have all taken a more wait-and-see approach on the graphic sexual assault allegation against Fairfax.
“I have not read the allegations, but it takes tremendous courage for someone to come forward in the way that she did,” Booker said about Tyson’s allegations against Fairfax. “This is a deeply disturbing allegation that should be thoroughly investigated.”
Warren told reporters on Capitol Hill that more needed to come out about Fairfax.
“We will learn more about that, but it doesn’t change the fact that Northam needs to resign,” she said.
Harris said Thursday she thinks there should be an investigation into what happened surrounding the allegations against.
“But certainly her (the accuser’s) letter reads as – it’s quite detailed and suggests there’s credibility there.”
Klobuchar told reporters that she believes “you need to look at the facts of each case.”
Gillibrand, during a taping of the “Lovett or Leave It” podcast, calls for the allegations into Fairfax to be investigated.
“I think the fact that Dr. Tyson came forward took enormous courage. And you can tell from her statement that it causes her great, great trauma to relive the worst moment of her life,” she said, according to a transcript provided to CNN. “So I think there has to be a full investigation, I thought her story was deeply disturbing and credible so there must be an investigation.”
Sanders was dogged by reporters on Wednesday about Fairfax and at one point dodged questions while on the phone
“Excuse me, I am on the phone,” he said.
Castro and Buttigieg responded to the allegations against Fairfax on television shows on Wednesday.
“I read through Dr. Tyson’s statement, and I’m inclined to believe her statement. I believe that it’s credible. Now he has denied that,” Castro said. “My hope is that there will be some process to get to the bottom of that. He has said that, now he’s saying that he takes it seriously. I think that we should all take it seriously.”
Buttigieg responded to the now two racist incidents engulfing Northam and Herring by saying there is a “relationship between racism in America’s past and racism in America’s present.”
“I mean, it’s shocking that we’re dealing with three at once in the state of Virginia. It’s also clear that each one has its own dynamics and I think that’s one of the reasons each one has aroused a different set of responses,” he said.
Biden and Bloomberg, two possible 2020 candidates who tweeted calls for Northam to go shortly after the photo was made public, have yet to weigh in on the allegations against Fairfax and the admission by Herring.
The caution is not unique to national Democrats, either.
Democrats in Virginia’s Capitol building on Wednesday, some of whom were quick to respond to Northam’s controversy by calling for him to go, dodged reporters asking about Fairfax and Herring. Some threw their hands in the air, others acted like they didn’t hear the questions.
That includes the influential Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, whose initial call for Northam to resign opened the flood gates on the calls for Northan’s ouster.
Delegate Charniele Herring, a member of the black caucus, said Thursday that she would not comment on the allegations against Fairfax and didn’t know of any plans for the caucus to investigate the allegations into the lieutenant governor.
“We are focused on the budget and I am working hard to make sure we can get our people elected in the fall,” she said.
When pressed if she was concerned about the allegations against Fairfax she said she believes “all allegations like this should be taken seriously” before ducking into a private room.”
Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn echoed a focus on legislation when asked about Fairfax and Herring.
“It has been a very tough week, to say the least. A lot of serious issues to focus on,” she said. “But we really are here to do our jobs, we are here to governor, we are here to legislative, so we are very much focused on the bills and, today more specifically, the budget.”
Two of Virginia’s most senior statesmen – US Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner – took a more cautious approach to Northam, only calling for his resignation after his bizarre press conference on Saturday where the governor denied being in the racist photo but admitted to dressing in blackface at another time.
Kaine said Wednesday that he needs more information on Fairfax and Herring before making a decision on whether they should go.
“It’s just too soon. We’re just still processing this, you know? We reached - I reached a conclusion about Governor Northam about 24 hours after the news broke,” he said.
Warner expressed a similar sentiment.
“This has obviously been an extraordinarily challenging week for all Virginians. I think regardless where we stand, there needs to be a moment of our Commonwealth coming together,” he said, adding that he was “shocked and disappointed. “
“I’m still processing it,” Warner said. “I have not even had a chance to review his statements… it’s obviously been a challenging week.”