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News > U.S.

Virginia Governor Roiled by Racism, Sexual Misconduct Charges

  • 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.

    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. | Photo: Reuters

Published 4 February 2019

Northam's office did not respond to questions about his plans on Monday, but local media outlets reported he was meeting with advisers.

Virginia politics went into further turmoil Monday as the lieutenant governor of the eastern U.S. state, where the governor is under intense pressure to resign, was accused of sexual misconduct.

Pressure Continues on 'Blackface' Governor to Step Down

A few dozen protesters gathered at the state capitol in Richmond to demand that Northam, a white man, step down, while Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who is black, said there was "a lot of uncertainty" in the state's government.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who would take over if Governor Ralph Northam steps down, strongly denied the allegation made by a woman about a sexual encounter they had in a hotel room 15 years ago.

Fairfax, 39, a Democrat who won election along with Northam in November, said it had been a "100 percent consensual encounter."

"There was no inappropriate contact whatsoever," Fairfax told reporters. "Years later, now we have a totally fabricated story out of the blue that's meant to attack me because of where I am in politics," he said. "This has been weaponized and used as a smear."

The allegations against Fairfax came as Northam, 59, is facing calls to step down from both Republicans and Democrats alike. Northam has been fighting for his political survival since a 1984 yearbook surfaced last week that features a racist photo on a page dedicated to him.

The allegation of sexual misconduct against Fairfax was made on the same conservative website that published the yearbook picture.

Northam, 59, initially apologized on Friday and said he was one of the two people in the photo, which features two people standing together —one in blackface, the other dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. 

The origins of blackface date to 19th-century "minstrel" shows in which white performers covered their faces in black grease paint to caricature slaves.

But then at a press conference on Saturday, Northam denied that he was one of the men in the photo, describing the photo as "shocking and horrific." Still, the governor did admit that he had once applied shoe polish on his face — to imitate Michael Jackson during a 1984 dance contest.

"I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that," Northam said.

Fairfax, 39, who is in line to succeed Northam and become only the fifth African-American to serve as governor of a U.S. state, dating back to the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction, said he was not sure what Northam's next move would be.

"I believe the governor has to make a decision that's in the best interest of the Commonwealth of Virginia," Fairfax told reporters at the capitol.

Asked if he was preparing to possibly assume office as governor, Fairfax replied, "There is a lot of uncertainty right now in our government. But we always have to be ready."

Should Northam resign, Fairfax would be the second black governor - after Douglas Wilder - in the history of Virginia, where his great-great-great grandfather once was a slave.

The scandal drew immediate demands for his resignation from Virginia politicians, the NAACP civil rights group and national political figures. At least five Democratic presidential candidates, including U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, both of whom are black, said Northam had lost the moral authority to lead.

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