Virginia’s governor has pledged to work towards healing the state’s racial divide, as calls mounted for the lieutenant governor to resign.
Governor Ralph Northam’s move caps an astonishing week which saw all three of the US state’s top elected officials embroiled in potentially career-ending scandals.
Two women have accused Lt Gov Justin Fairfax of sexual assault. He emphatically denies both allegations.
After the second allegation was made on Friday, Mr Fairfax – who stands to become the state’s second black governor if Mr 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.
Meanwhile, Mr Northam – now a year into his four-year term – announced his intention to stay at a Friday afternoon Cabinet meeting.
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 page surfaced and he acknowledged wearing blackface in the 1980s.
In his first interview since the scandal erupted, Mr Northam told The Washington Post 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,” Mr Northam said. “There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity.”
Mr Northam said he planned to work for the rest of his term to address issues stemming from inequality, including improving access to health care, housing, and transportation. He also repeated his contention that he is not the one pictured on his yearbook page in blackface. But he could not explain how the image ended up there, or why he had initially taken responsibility for it.
“I overreacted,” he said. “If I had it to do over again, I would step back and take a deep breath.”
On Saturday, Mr Northam made his first official public appearance since he denied being in the photo, attending the funeral of a state trooper killed in a shootout. He made no public comments upon arriving in Chilhowie, four hours west of the tumult in Richmond.
Moments after Mr Northam’s meeting with his Cabinet on Friday, a second woman went public with accusations against Mr Fairfax. The 39-year-old woman claimed Mr Fairfax raped her 19 years ago while they were students at Duke University.
Mr Fairfax denied the new allegation, having also denied an earlier claim that he sexually assaulted a woman at a Boston hotel in 2004.
“It is obvious that a vicious and coordinated smear campaign is being orchestrated against me,” Mr Fairfax said. “I will not resign.”
Top Democrats running for president in 2020 called for Fairfax’s resignation, including senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Virginia’s Democratic congressional delegation was split.
The tumult in Virginia began late last week, with the discovery of the photo on Mr Northam’s yearbook profile page that showed someone in blackface standing beside another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
Mr 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 Mr Fairfax was publicly accused of sexual assault for the first time.
Although the Democratic Party has taken 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, the Republican Kirk Cox would become governor.