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Could a Sexual-Assault Scandal Save Ralph Northam?

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Governor Ralph Northam addresses the media at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, Virginia.

By Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post.

Virginia’s political maelstrom, once centered on governor Ralph Northam, has shifted to lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax, who faces possible impeachment. Democrats in the state have demanded he step down amid allegations that he sexually assaulted Dr. Vanessa Tyson, a professor of political science, at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and Meredith Watson when the two attended Duke University in 2000. But Fairfax has refused, denying the accusations and calling for an F.B.I. probe into the “smear campaign” against him.

Virginia lawmakers threatened to take matters into their own hands this week, when Democrat Patrick Hope circulated a draft resolution to launch impeachment proceedings if Fairfax didn’t resign by the end of the weekend. But on Monday, Hope announced that he would wait for “additional conversations” before officially implementing an impeachment push, writing that it was important to “make sure that we have thought through every option the General Assembly has” before taking action. “That’s what these conversations are for—so we can build more consensus on a path forward,” he tweeted.

Fairfax’s scandal appears to have taken some of the heat off Northam—who seems more adamant than ever that he will serve out his term. Last week, a photo from Northam’s medical school yearbook surfaced depicting two people in racist costumes. Though he initially acknowledged being one of the two people pictured, Northam later reversed course, claiming he was now unsure if he was in the photograph—even as he admitted to having worn blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume in a bumbling news conference. But with the second accusation against Fairfax, Northam has doubled down, making the rounds on an equally clumsy apology tour over the weekend. “I know in my heart who I am and I know what I can do,” the Democratic governor told Gayle King in a CBS interview Monday, noting that the episode has helped him finally understand the “powerful implications” of his white privilege. “Virginia right now needs a leader that’s strong, that has courage, and that can take us to the next level—and I can do that,” he promised.

It seems Northam may be able to weather the political storm that has ensnared the state’s top three Democrats. But that may not be true for Fairfax, who is facing calls to step down from both the state’s Democratic party and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus—and an impeachment effort that could restart at any time. “I believe Dr. Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson,” Hope tweeted Monday. “I promise that my work on this issue will be tireless until we have a process and outcome that treats these women with the respect they deserve going forward.”

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This story was originally published by Vanity Fair

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