Democrats speechless as scandal engulfs Virginia’s leaders
By ALAN SUDERMAN
Thursday, February 7
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — With Virginia’s top three elected officials engulfed in scandal, fellow Democrats were rendered practically speechless, uncertain of how to thread their way through the racial and sexual allegations and their tangled political implications.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s career was already hanging by a thread over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook when a woman publicly accused the lieutenant governor of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago, and then the attorney general admitted that he too wore blackface once, as a teenager.
Everyone in Richmond, it seemed, was waiting Thursday for Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus to respond to the latest developments. “We’ve got a lot to digest,” the group’s chairman, Del. Lamont Bagby, said Wednesday.
Attorney General Mark Herring — in line to become governor if Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax resign — issued a statement acknowledging he wore brown makeup and a wig in 1980 to look like a rapper during a party when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.
Herring — who had previously called on Northam to resign and was planning to run for governor himself in 2021 — apologized for his “callous” behavior and said that the days ahead “will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve.”
The 57-year-old Herring came forward after rumors about the existence of a blackface photo of him began circulating at the Capitol.
Also Wednesday, Vanessa Tyson, the California woman whose sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax surfaced earlier this week, put out a detailed statement saying Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in a hotel room in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
The Associated Press typically does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted, but Tyson issued the statement in her name.
Tyson, a 42-year-old political scientist who is on a fellowship at Stanford University and specializes in the political discourse of sexual assault, said, “I have no political motive. I am a proud Democrat.”
“Mr. Fairfax has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation,” she said. “Given his false assertions, I’m compelled to make clear what happened.”
Fairfax — who is in line to become governor if Northam resigns — has repeatedly denied her allegations, saying that the encounter was consensual and that he is the victim of a strategically timed political smear.
“At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years,” he said in a statement.
Tyson said she suffered “deep humiliation and shame” and stayed quiet about the allegations as she pursued her career, but by late 2017, as the #MeToo movement took shape and after she saw an article about Fairfax’s campaign, she took her story to The Washington Post, which decided months later not to publish a story.
The National Organization for Women immediately called on Fairfax to resign, saying, “Her story is horrifying, compelling and clear as day — and we believe her.”
The string of scandals that began when the yearbook picture came to light last Friday could have a domino effect on Virginia state government: If all three top Democrats fall, House Speaker Kirk Cox, a conservative Republican, would command the state.
Cox issued a statement late Wednesday calling the allegations against Fairfax “extremely serious” and said they need a “full airing of facts.” Cox also urged Herring to “adhere to the standard he has set for others,” a nod to Herring’s previous call that Northam resign.
At the Capitol, lawmakers were dumbstruck over the day’s fast-breaking developments, with Democratic Sen. Barbara Favola saying, “I have to take a breath and think about this. This is moving way too quickly.” GOP House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said it would be “reckless” to comment. “There’s just too much flying around,” he said.
The black caucus quickly condemned Northam and called on him to resign after his initial comments about the yearbook photo, but the group has been silent so far on the allegations involving Fairfax and Herring.
Democrats have expressed fear that the uproar over the governor could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated Virginia legislature this year. The party made big gains in 2017, in part because of a backlash against President Donald Trump, and has moved to within striking distance of a majority in both houses.
At the same time, the Democrats nationally have taken a hard line against misconduct in their ranks because women and minorities are a vital part of their base and they want to be able to criticize Trump’s behavior without looking hypocritical.
Trump accused Democrats Thursday of political bias, tweeting that “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken.”
Northam has come under pressure from nearly the entire Democratic establishment to resign after the discovery of a photo on his profile page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook of someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
The governor initially said he was in the photo without saying which costume he was wearing, then denied it a day later. But he acknowledged he once used shoe polish to blacken his face and look like Michael Jackson at a dance contest in Texas in 1984, when he was in the Army.
Herring came down hard on Northam when the yearbook photo surfaced, condemning it as “indefensible,” and “profoundly offensive.” He said it was no longer possible for Northam to lead the state.
On Wednesday, though, Herring confessed that he and two friends dressed up to look like rappers, admitting: “It sounds ridiculous even now writing it.”
“That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others,” he said. But he added: “This conduct is in no way reflective of the man I have become in the nearly 40 years since.”
Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas said several people were crying, including men, as Herring apologized to black lawmakers Wednesday morning before issuing his public statement.
“He said he was very sorry,” Lucas said.
Lucas said the black lawmakers told Herring they needed to discuss their next steps among themselves.
Herring, who was elected to his second four-year term in 2017, made a name for himself nationally by playing a central role in bringing gay marriage to Virginia. His refusal to defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage once in office was cited by a federal judge who overturned the ban, and Virginia began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2014, nearly a year before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.
Associated Press writer Matthew Barakat contributed to this report.
Democrats mute calls for Va. resignations with power at risk
By ALAN SUDERMAN and NICHOLAS RICCARDI
Thursday, February 7
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Prominent Democrats came down hard on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam after he apologized for a racist photo. But they were quieter as two more scandals — one involving race, another a sexual assault allegation — rocked Virginia’s statehouse.
The subdued response from national Democrats shows how their zero-tolerance approach has put them in a bind. The party has prided itself on policing its own and hoped to contrast that record with the GOP’s tolerance of misbehavior by President Donald Trump. Now the party will have to decide whether to stick with its principles or retain its political power.
“The party’s put in an odd position,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist who, like much of the political world, watched Virginia’s developments with astonishment Wednesday. “Let’s say they live by their standards and clean house. The stakes are very real now because the line of succession goes through the other side.”
In a tweet Thursday, Trump accused Democrats of “killing the Great State of Virginia.” He predicted that the state, which saw Democratic gains in 2017 and which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, “will come back HOME Republican) in 2020!”
Last Friday, a picture of a man in blackface on Northam’s medical school yearbook page surfaced. During a press conference Saturday, Northam insisted he was not in the yearbook photo but admitted he had once worn blackface. Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, said, “It is no longer possible for Gov. Northam to lead our Commonwealth.”
On Wednesday, the Democrat who would succeed Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, reeled from a detailed statement released by a woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her 15 years ago.
Later Wednesday, Herring, the Democrat who would succeed Fairfax, admitted he had worn blackface while in college.
If all three Democrats stepped down, Republicans would take over the state’s top offices. The GOP speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox, is in line to become governor, and the Republican-controlled House would select a new attorney general. That’s a different dynamic from recent efforts by Democrats to clean house.
In 2017, the party pushed Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, to resign after several women accused him of sexual harassment, but he was replaced by a Democrat. When inter-party fury rained down on Northam after the photo came to light last Friday, it seemed likely he’d be replaced by Fairfax.
“The cost for Democrats of getting rid of the office holder are really low,” Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist, said of the Northam and Franken scandals earlier this week. “The real test,” he added, would be a scenario in which Republicans could gain a key political office.
Democrats did not seem to pass that test Wednesday. No Democratic presidential contender candidate issued any statement calling for the resignations of Herring or Fairfax, whose accuser, Vanessa Tyson, is represented by the same law firm that represented future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is exploring a Democratic presidential bid, told NBC, “I don’t know that this is a set of decisions we can automate because each of these cases brings different elements to it.”
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker told reporters at the Capitol that “it takes tremendous courage for someone to come forward in the way that she did. This is a deeply disturbing allegation that should be thoroughly investigated.”
Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who was the first presidential candidate to call for Northam’s resignation, told MSNBC it was important for the party to confront the issue. “This can be painful,” Castro said. “But I’m confident that at the end of that day, what we’re going to have is not only a stronger Democratic Party, more importantly we’re going to have a stronger country that lives by these values of respect for everybody.”
Jennifer Wexton, a newly elected Democratic congresswoman representing Northern Virginia, tweeted, “I believe Dr. Vanessa Tyson.” And Al Sharpton, the prominent black activist and television personality, told BuzzFeed News that Herring and Northam should resign and that he’d lead protests against the two politicians. The National Organization of Women called for Fairfax’s resignation.
Part of the reticence to talk was clearly the speed at which the allegations surfaced. Northam’s inner circle was taken aback by how quickly national figures piled on him. The stampede became so pronounced that Herring himself called for Northam’s departure on Saturday after the governor, at a press conference, admitted he’d worn blackface before but denied he was the person in the yearbook photo.
State Sen. Barbara Favola, a Democrat, showed signs of weariness when asked about the new allegations Wednesday. “I have to think about this, I really do,” she said. “I have to take a breath and think about this. This is moving way too quickly. My goal is to be fair to everyone concerned.”
Democrats were also visibly frustrated that Republicans were capitalizing on the scandals. Cox, for example, said Herring “should adhere to the standards he’s set for others or lose credibility” and called the allegations against Fairfax “shocking.”
Guy Cecil, head of the major Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, was one of the earlier national Democrats to demand Northam’s resignation. On Wednesday afternoon, he tweeted: “The past actions of Virginia’s leaders are abhorrent, but many Republicans around the country are engaged in modern-day Jim Crow voter suppression. They need to sweep their own porch before sitting in judgment of another.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who is close to Northam but has called for his resignation, acknowledged the frustrations of other members of his party. He told reporters in the Capitol that he couldn’t judge yet what should happen to Fairfax or Herring but that Democrats shouldn’t worry about the political consequences.
“When the politics are bad — and they’re bad — and everything else sucks, as it does now, just follow the principles,” Kaine said. “Just ask, ‘What is the right way to treat people?’ And that actually makes it clearer.”
Associated Press writers Elana Schor and Juana Summers in Washington contributed to this report.
Woman details sex accusation roiling Virginia politics
By MICHAEL BIESECKER and MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
Wednesday, February 6
WASHINGTON (AP) — A California woman went public with her sexual assault accusation against Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax on Wednesday, saying in a statement that she suppressed the memory for years but came forward in part because of the possibility that the Democrat could succeed a scandal-mired governor.
Vanessa Tyson, a 42-year-old political science professor who studies the intersection of politics and the #MeToo movement, says Fairfax held her head down and forced her to perform oral sex on him in his hotel room at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004.
“I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual,” Tyson said in a three-page statement issued by her attorney. “To be very clear, I did not want to engage in oral sex with Mr. Fairfax and I never gave any form of consent. Quite the opposite.”
The accusation comes amid calls from top Democrats for the resignation of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam over a racist photo that appeared on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. Fairfax, who would be in line to become governor if Northam resigned, said Wednesday his sexual encounter with Tyson was consensual and questioned why she waited so long to come forward.
At the time of the 2004 convention, Fairfax, now 39, was a law student serving as an aide to then-Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards.
While Tyson said in her statement that she never spoke to Fairfax again, Fairfax said Tyson made efforts to keep in contact with him after their encounter and even wanted him to meet her mother.
“At no time did she express to me any discomfort or concern about our interactions, neither during that encounter, nor during the months following it, when she stayed in touch with me, nor the past 15 years,” Fairfax said .
Tyson said Wednesday the incident left her feeling deeply humiliated and ashamed but she suppressed the memory to focus on her career as an academic. She only began to tell friends about the alleged assault in October 2017, after seeing a photo of Fairfax with an article about his campaign. She said she was inspired in part by the #MeToo movement to contact The Washington Post, which investigated her accusation and decided not to publish a story because it could not corroborate it.
Tyson said she became embroiled in the issue most recently in a cryptic Facebook post she wrote after news stories suggested that the racist photo scandal surrounding Northam could elevate Fairfax to the governor’s job.
“I felt a jarring sense of both outrage and despair,” she said in the statement. “That night I vented my frustration on Facebook in a message that I wrote as a private post. I did not identify Lt. Governor Fairfax by name but stated that it seemed inevitable that the campaign staffer who assaulted me during the Democratic Convention in 2004 was about to get a big promotion.”
Fairfax, who has been married since 2006, has called Tyson’s accusation part of a political smear campaign. Tyson said that she has no political motive and is a “proud Democrat.”
“My only motive in speaking now is to refute Mr. Fairfax’s falsehoods and aspersions of my character, and to provide what I believe is important information for Virginians to have as they make critical decisions that involve Mr. Fairfax,” Tyson said.
The Associated Press typically does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted, but Tyson issued the statement in her name.
Tyson said she met Fairfax while they were working at the convention and he suggested they get some fresh air by walking to his hotel room.
She said that “what began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault” and that Fairfax forced her head to his crotch, where he had unzipped his pants.
“Utterly shocked and terrified, I tried to move my head away, but could not because his hand was holding down my neck and he was much stronger than me,” she said.
Tyson, an associate professor in politics at Scripps College in California, is on a yearlong fellowship at Stanford University, where she’s studying the political discourse of sexual assault. She is slated to lead a symposium there next week titled: “Betrayal and Courage in the Age of #MeToo.”
In a 2007 YouTube video, Tyson talks about her work at a Boston rape crisis center, about being a victim of incest at age 8 and about the importance of sexual assault victims coming forward.
“People don’t want to hear the message — so we just have to get a little louder,” Tyson said. “Build the numbers, keep the message going — do what we have to do until they start seeing us.”
Since the #MeToo movement emerged, Tyson has been frequently quoted as an expert about the intersection of politics and sexual assault and harassment claims, including the allegations by multiple women that triggered the 2017 resignation of Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat.
Tyson this week hired the same Washington law firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford, the California psychology professor who accused then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her. He denied the accusation.
During the Kavanaugh hearings last fall, Tyson posted on Twitter: “Sending love to all the survivors out there whose rapists/assailants called it ‘consensual’ and whose society privileges an old boys club over all else.”
AP Washington Bureau Chief Julie Pace contributed to this report. Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland.
Follow AP investigative reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck and Michael Kunzelman http://twitter.com/Kunzelman75
Contact the AP’s investigative team with tips about this or other matters: https://www.ap.org/tips
Freezing rain causes power outages, ices Midwest roads
Thursday, February 7
DETROIT (AP) — Freezing rain left roads slippery, cut power to thousands of homes and businesses, and prompted officials to close hundreds of schools in parts of the Midwest on Wednesday, while flooding caused by ice jams prompted evacuations in Michigan and Illinois.
The National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory warning of freezing rain, snow and another round of cold weather from Nebraska through Michigan. The warnings also come in the wake of snow, ice and shivering cold hitting normally mild cities in the West.
School districts including Detroit’s were closed Wednesday, as was Wayne State University after residents awoke to a thick coating of ice covering streets, driveways and vehicles. Freezing rain in Kansas and Missouri created icy roadways blamed in two separate crashes that killed three people. The icy conditions prompted officials to cancel classes at dozens of schools in both states.
In mid-Michigan, flooding caused by an ice jam along the Grand River in Portland prompted officials to evacuate about 50 people from homes near the river. Jim Hilligan told the Lansing State Journal that emergency response officials went door-to-door evacuating residents.
“They weren’t rushing, but they were like, ‘You guys got to get out of your house, the river has broken the banks,’” Hilligan said.
Major utilities reported more than 50,000 customers were without power early Wednesday in the state, mostly in western Michigan, after freezing rain brought down trees and power lines.
Ice was also breaking up along the Kankakee River in northeastern Illinois, flooding some roads and prompting evacuations. The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning in the area Wednesday morning.
Dangerously low temperatures set in across the Northern Plains, while storms moving into North Dakota and western Minnesota were expected to bring as much as a foot of snow (30.5 centimeters) and wind chills as low as minus 40 (negative 40 Celsius).
Heavy snowfall blanketed states to the West, including Utah, where a winter storm triggered a rare snow day for many students, delayed government operations and snarled morning traffic. Snowfall closed schools and kept snow plow operators busy across northern Arizona early Wednesday, with Flagstaff residents waking up to 9.4 inches of snow (24 centimeters), according to the National Weather Service.
Bitter cold also moved into the Sierra Nevada on Wednesday on the heels of a storm that dropped up to 3 feet (91 centimeters) of snow on the mountains around Lake Tahoe the day before.
(AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)