Black Virginia voters feel betrayed, left in no-win scenario

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Eva Siakam's choice to campaign for Ralph Northam in 2017 was a simple one: He was a Democrat and endorsed by Barack Obama, America's first black president.

But sitting in a stylist's chair at Supreme Hair Styling Boutique in Richmond on Friday, she shook her head in disgust when asked about revelations that Northam wore blackface as a medical student 35 years ago.

"I really believed in him," said Siakam, a 28-year-old student. "To find out that he dressed up in blackface is disappointing. He's shown his disdain for black people."

Black voters who factored prominently in the 2017 election that helped Northam become governor are feeling betrayed over the scandals that have engulfed the state over the past week, leaving them with a less-than-ideal set of choices at the top of the Democratic Party: a governor and attorney general who wore blackface and a lieutenant governor who stands accused by two women of sexual assault. The next person in line for governor is a conservative Republican.

Many are struggling to come to grips with a list of nagging questions: Do they forgive the Democrats, keep Republicans out of power and demand the governor get serious about racism? Should Northam step down and hand the office to African-American Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who faces sexual assault allegations? Or should all three of them walk away and let principle prevail, even if the other party takes charge?

The dilemma was being weighed in black barber shops, salons, restaurants and living rooms and in activist and political circles across the state in the midst of a still-unfolding reckoning around race and scandal in the Old Dominion.

"We don't even know where to take the conversation from here," community organizer Chelsea Wise said at a meeting of Democrats in Richmond on Thursday. "Do we want to address all of them, or are we just sticking with Ralph right now? The fact that it's all of our top leadership shows that we need to take a hard look at the Virginia Democratic Party as well."

The governor has been facing calls to resign ever since a photo emerged from his medical school yearbook page in 1984 that showed someone in blackface next to a person wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam later admitted wearing blackface and impersonating Michael Jackson around the same time. Days later, Fairfax was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2004, and Attorney General Mark Herring came forward to admit that he, too, wore blackface in the 1980s.

As of Friday night, Northam informed his cabinet that he was determined to stay in office, Herring remained in a wait-and-see posture, and Fairfax had denied a second accusation of sexual assault, this one from a classmate at Duke University who said he raped her in 2000. Northam is vowing to start an honest conversation on race to begin to heal Virginia's lingering racial legacy.

Siakam said she thinks Northam should resign, but said the conversation must now turn to the larger impacts of racism on communities of color.

"There's nothing you can do for us to forget, but we should focus more now on structural racism," she said.

African Americans, who make up 20 percent of Virginia voters, overwhelmingly supported the commonwealth's top three Democrats in 2017, in large part as a repudiation of what they saw as the racist rhetoric and policies prevalent in the 2016 presidential campaign and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville just months before the election. Both Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring campaigned heavily in black areas, and were given entree into many communities by local officials, faith leaders, business owners and regular citizens.

Wise said she had reservations about Northam's commitment to black communities during the election, but supported him anyway and was prepared to hold him accountable amid a racially divided national climate.

"We knew Trump had just gotten elected and we needed a Democratic governor in Virginia, especially because of the importance of the state in national elections," Wise, 34, explained. "I almost felt like I couldn't question him because of the urgency add the importance of what we just had on the national level."

Wise said she felt betrayed by Northam's revelations, particularly because he remained silent about his own past after the events of Charlottesville.

"How in the world did you not come out and do your own truth telling?" she said. "That makes me recognize that you don't have the insight and emotional capacity to take on what we need in Virginia at this time."

Shemicia Bowen campaigned for Democrats up and down the ticket. The 44-year-old Richmond resident said she gasped when she learned the governor had worn blackface 35 years ago. She finds Herring's revelations were even more alarming because he's the state's top lawyer and has to deal with daily decisions affecting black people in the criminal justice system.

Still, Bowen struggles with the way forward for black Virginians. She doesn't think anyone will step down, and as a loyal Democrat, she's not sure they should turn over the state to Republicans.

"We can't just throw the whole ticket away at this point," said Bowen. "But we have to understand that blackface is a blatant form of disrespect. If an elected official isn't aware of that, what else are they not aware of? What else do you feel like is not a big deal? How are you able to effectively be a voice for every person?"

Norfolk native Joe Dillard said Northam should resign, and that the allegations against Fairfax should be investigated before discussing what consequences he should face. But the idea of a Republican governor should all three step aside was not unpalatable if it's the right decision, he said.

"Do I think I should support Democrats to the point where I allow certain things that my great grandparents would slap me in the face for letting slide? No, I won't," Dillard said. "I am not a Democrat before I'm an African-American man. For me, it's always people over party."

Dillard and Bowen, both members of a group of young blacks active in Virginia politics, said Northam should immediately allocate at least $20 million to the state's historically black colleges and universities, which have been underfunded. Dillard also suggested an African-American liaison in the governor's office, to establish a pipeline for young blacks to rise to meaningful positions in government. Wise is already looking ahead to future cycles, where she feels more black women in leadership would help to restore her confidence in the party.

Jim Scurlock, a longtime elections supervisor in Richmond who went to segregated high schools in Roanoke before experiencing the sting of Jim Crow as a young soldier in the Army in 1960, was withholding judgment on Fairfax. And he said given the national political climate and the country's racist legacy, everyone deserves a second chance.

"Probably many, many more in the General Assembly wore blackface," Scurlock, 82, said. "Virginia is still a racist state. It hasn't changed much. And look at the president and all he has done . I haven't forgiven the president, but he's still in office, so why should they resign?"


Calls mount for Virginia lieutenant governor's resignation

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Calls were mounting for Virginia's lieutenant governor to resign Saturday, at the tail end of an astonishing week that saw the state's top three elected officials — all Democrats — embroiled in potentially career-ending scandals fraught with questions of race, sex and power.

Two women have accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, and he has emphatically denied both allegations . After the second allegation was made Friday, Fairfax — who stands to become the state's second black governor if Gov. Ralph Northam resigns over a racist photo — was barraged with demands to step down from top Democrats, including a number of presidential hopefuls and most of Virginia's congressional delegation.

Northam, now a year into his four-year term, announced his intention to stay at a Friday afternoon Cabinet meeting, according to a senior official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

In so doing, Northam defied practically the entire Democratic Party, which rose up against him after a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced and he acknowledged wearing blackface in the 1980s.

On Saturday, Northam made his first official public appearance since he denied being in the photo. He attended the funeral for a state trooper killed in a shootout. He made no public comments upon arriving in Chilhowie, four hours west of the tumult in Richmond, and wasn't listed as a speaker in the funeral program.

Moments after Northam's Friday meeting with this Cabinet, a second woman went public with accusations against Fairfax. A lawyer for Meredith Watson, 39, said in a statement that Fairfax raped Watson 19 years ago while they were students at Duke University.

The statement said it was a "premeditated and aggressive" assault and that while Watson and Fairfax had been social friends, they were never involved romantically.

The lawyer, Nancy Erika Smith, said her team had statements from ex-classmates who said Watson "immediately" told friends Fairfax raped her. A public relations firm representing Watson provided The Associated Press with a 2016 email exchange with a female friend and 2017 text exchanges in which Watson said Fairfax had raped her.

Watson's representatives declined to provide further documentation and said their client would not talk to journalists.

Fairfax denied the new allegation, as he did the first, leveled earlier by Vanessa Tyson, a California college professor who said Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004.

"It is obvious that a vicious and coordinated smear campaign is being orchestrated against me," Fairfax said. "I will not resign."

Duke campus police have no criminal reports naming Fairfax, university spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said. Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn also said he couldn't find a report in the department's system on the 2000 allegation.

Many Democrats who had carefully withheld judgment after the first accusation against Fairfax, saying the matter needed to be investigated, immediately condemned him. A cascade of calls for Fairfax to resign began Friday evening, mirroring the timing of last week's calls for Northam to resign.

Top Democrats running for president in 2020 called for Fairfax's resignation, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Virginia's Democratic congressional delegation was split.

Party elders Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Bobby Scott said Fairfax should resign if the allegations against him were true.

Other congressional Democrats made unqualified calls for Fairfax to resign.

The Virginia Black Legislative Caucus joined calls for Fairfax's departure. And a Democratic member of the state House, Del. Patrick Hope, said he intends to introduce articles of impeachment against Fairfax on Monday if Fairfax hasn't left by then.

On Saturday, Virginia's House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox joined the chorus calling for Fairfax's resignation. Cox — a Republican, and third in line for governor should Northam step down — said in a statement that Fairfax's ability to govern has been "permanently impaired" by the "multiple, serious credible allegations" of sexual assault.

If Fairfax were to leave, there's no consensus on who could replace him. Northam may try to appoint a Democrat, while Republicans could mount a legal challenge with the goal of having Sen. Steve Newman, the Senate's pro tem, serve as both a voting senator and temporary lieutenant governor.

The tumult in Virginia began late last week, with the discovery of the photo on Northam's yearbook profile page that showed someone in blackface standing beside another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.

Northam at first admitted he was in the picture, then denied it a day later, but acknowledged he once put shoe polish on his face to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984.

Virginia slid deeper into crisis on Wednesday, when Attorney General Mark Herring acknowledged wearing blackface at a college party in 1980, and Fairfax was publicly accused of sexual assault for the first time.

Although the Democratic Party has taken almost a zero-tolerance approach to misconduct among its members in this #MeToo era, a housecleaning in Virginia could be costly to them: If all three Democrats resigned, Republican Cox would become governor.

____

Associated Press journalists Steve Helber in Chilhowie, Virginia; Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia; Julie Pace and Michael Biesecker in Washington; Jonathan Drew in Durham, North Carolina; Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland; Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston; and Thomas Beaumont in Mason City, Iowa, contributed to this report.