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Tuesday April 23rd, 2019 10:53AM

Virginia lieutenant governor resists calls to step down

By The Associated Press
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia's embattled lieutenant governor has urged authorities to investigate sexual assault allegations made against him, but hasn't heeded calls to resign and it is unclear what comes next for the once-rising star of the state Democratic Party.

Two women have made allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. But on Saturday, Fairfax issued a statement repeating his strong denials that he had ever sexually assaulted anyone and made clear he does not intend to immediately step down.

Democratic Del. Patrick Hope said he wants to introduce articles of impeachment against Fairfax on Monday, but Hope is not a powerful figure in the House and there's little sign there's a broad appetite for impeachment with lawmakers set to finish this year's legislative session by the end of the month.

If an impeachment hearing does occur, though, attorneys for both of the women —Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson — say they are willing to testify. The Associated Press does not generally name victims of alleged sexual assault, but both women have come forward voluntarily.

Watson alleges that Fairfax raped her while they were students at Duke University in 2000, her attorney said in a statement. Tyson, a California college professor, alleges that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004.

Fairfax has denied both allegations and on Saturday asked that "no one rush to judgment."

"Our American values don't just work when it's convenient — they must be applied at the most difficult of times," he said.

Fairfax has urged the FBI to conduct a full investigation, but it was not clear on what basis. The FBI has jurisdiction over federal crimes, but sexual assault allegations such as the ones Fairfax is facing are traditionally regarded as state offenses handled by local police and prosecutors.

One way the FBI could potentially become involved is if Fairfax were to allege that he is the victim of extortion — which is a federal crime — but he has not made that claim.

"Frankly, we really want any entity with comprehensive investigative power to thoroughly look into these accusations," Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke said. "There needs to be verification of basic facts about these allegations. It feels like something bigger is going on here."

After the second allegation against Fairfax was made Friday, he was hit with a barrage of demands to step down from top Democrats, including a number of presidential hopefuls and most of Virginia's congressional delegation. Fairfax is the second African-American to ever win statewide office.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ralph Northam pledged to work at healing the state's racial divide and made his first official appearance a week after a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced and he acknowledged wearing blackface in the 1980s. Northam has also defied calls from practically his entire party to step down.

In his first interview since the scandal erupted, a chastened Northam told The Washington Post on Saturday that the uproar has pushed him to confront the state's deep and lingering divisions over race, as well as his own insensitivity. But he said that reflection has convinced him that, by remaining in office, he can work to resolve them.

"It's obvious from what happened this week that we still have a lot of work to do," Northam said in the interview, conducted at the Executive Mansion. "There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity."

On Saturday, Northam made his first official public appearance since he denied being in the photo, attending the funeral for a state trooper killed in a shootout. But he made no public comments.

The lieutenant governor did not make any public appearances Saturday and released his statement late in the day, after Republican state House Speaker Kirk Cox and the Democratic Party of Virginia joined a chorus of other calls for Fairfax to resign.

Since the two allegations against Fairfax were made, many top Democrats running for president in 2020 have 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.

If Fairfax were to leave, it's unclear 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 Feb. 1, with the discovery of the photo on Northam's yearbook profile page.

Northam at first admitted he was in the picture, then denied it a day later, but acknowledged he wore blackface to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984.

Attorney General Mark Herring has since acknowledged wearing blackface at a college party in 1980. Herring — who would become governor if both Northam and Fairfax resign — had previously called on Northam to resign and came forward after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol.

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.

Democrats are also despondent about what the scandals have done to their chances of flipping control of the General Assembly.

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This story has been edited to correct last name in 6th paragraph to Tyson.

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Associated Press reporters 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.

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