RICHMOND, Va. ― Virginia has had one of the craziest weeks in state politics. First, the Democratic governor had to explain why there was a photo of two person, one dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb and the other in blackface, on his medical school yearbook page. Now the lieutenant governor is trying to get rid of an allegation that he sexually assaulted a woman in 2004.
Democrats in the state quickly condemned Gov. Ralph Northam for the racist image from 1984. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, in particular, was a catalyst in the state party’s abandonment of the governor.
But so far, Democratic members of the state legislature, known as the General Assembly, have been far more reluctant to discuss the allegation against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
“We’re going to wait to see how that information evolves,” said Virginia state Sen. Louise Lucas, a black senior Democrat who spoke to reporters in the Capitol rotunda in Richmond on Tuesday to reiterate her calls for Northam to resign.
“I have lots of thoughts ― but not for you,” said state Del. Chris Hurst (D), before abruptly walking through a side door off the House of Delegates floor.
State Sen. Chap Petersen, vice chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, declined to comment on the matter altogether.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, a bloc of African-American state delegates and senators, issued a statement on Monday ― but it was just to say that it didn’t have anything to say about the allegation against Fairfax, who is Virginia’s second-ever statewide black elected official.
“The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus takes all allegations of sexual assault or misconduct with the utmost seriousness,” the group wrote. “Given the recent allegations regarding Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax, the VLBC will continue to assess this developing situation as more details become available.”
Asked about the matter on the state House floor, Dels. Lamont Bagby and Jeff Bourne, both Democrats, deferred to their caucus’s statement, declining to provide additional comment.
The Democratic Party of Virginia issued a remarkably similar statement about the allegation on Tuesday afternoon.
Later in the day, the House and Senate Democratic caucuses released a joint statement with a comparable message.
“The facts here are still being determined,” the caucuses said. “Every individual deserves the opportunity to be heard, and we respect anyone who comes forward to share their story.”
The nature of the claim against Fairfax has indeed complicated the way lawmakers and media outlets discuss the allegation.
On Sunday night, a far-right website, Big League Politics, published a screenshot of a social media post in which the accuser lamented that Fairfax, who she said had assaulted her, was now poised to ascend to the highest post in the state. It is not clear that the accuser wanted the post to be publicized.
Fairfax’s staff subsequently denied the accusation, arguing that The Washington Post had already been alerted to the claim but found “significant red flags and inconsistencies” in the accuser’s story. His team threatened to take legal action “against those attempting to spread this defamatory and false allegation.”
The Post responded by publishing its own version of events in which it acknowledged that it had looked into the claim in November 2017 and revealed that the accuser alleged that Fairfax had physically coerced her into performing oral sex in 2004. The newspaper declined to publish the story because it felt it could not corroborate the charge, but it also denied finding “red flags.”
Fairfax’s accuser has now hired the same law firm that represented Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford.
State Democrats are waiting for Fairfax’s accuser to speak publicly about the incident, according to a Democratic activist familiar with their thinking.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) gave a similar explanation for his reticence in an interview with CBS News on Tuesday. “Every person who has a claim that they have been sexually assaulted deserves to tell their own story in their time and that’s not yet happened,” Kaine said.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) offered a more laconic comment, referring HuffPost back to Fairfax’s public denial.
But the Fairfax accusation comes mere months after national Democrats demanded a Senate hearing for Blasey Ford, the accuser of then-Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh.
To be sure, Blasey Ford had already agreed to reveal her identity when Democrats called for her to testify. It is not yet clear if Fairfax’s accuser wants to do the same, even though Big League Politics chose to publish her name.
“Busy with bills and focused on matters at hand right now.”
Still, it is notable that so far there is no push by Virginia Democrats to provide a forum for Fairfax’s accuser or to encourage her to come forward in the interest of shedding light on the matter.
State Sen. John Edwards (D) flatly rejected offering Fairfax’s accuser a forum, arguing that the allegation was less credible than the one against Kavanaugh.
“We believe [Fairfax],” he said. “The Washington Post indicated they can’t corroborate anything from [his accuser].”
Del. Karrie Delaney (D) did not reply to a question about whether Fairfax’s accuser deserved a hearing in the General Assembly.
When asked about providing an opportunity for the accuser to testify, Del. Hala Ayala (D) appeared to remember something she urgently needed to attend to and walked away.
Many lawmakers cited their focus on the flood of bills they had to vote on before the end of Tuesday, which is crossover day. Each chamber of the state legislature has until the end of the work day to finish passing its own bills for the session; tomorrow they must start looking at the other chamber’s bills.
Asked for her reaction to the allegation against Fairfax, House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D) said, “Busy with bills and focused on matters at hand right now.” She then briskly walked away.
“We’re so busy with session crossover that we really don’t have time” to react to the Fairfax allegation, said Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler (D), who was unaware that the lieutenant governor’s accuser had hired an attorney.
“We’ve got so many bills ahead of us now,” said Delaney. “The people have sent us here to deliver results so that’s what we’re focused on right now.”
Other lawmakers professed ignorance about the matter.
Had Del. Vivian Watts (D) had a moment to read up on the Fairfax allegation?
“I haven’t read anything!” Watts replied.
“I don’t know anything about it,” said Del. Mark Levine (D), when asked for his opinion.
Asked how the situation differed from the allegation against Kavanaugh, Levine again said, “I don’t know anything about it,” before exiting the House floor through a side door.
Another reporter asked Delaney what kind of message it sent for Democrats to press for transparency in the Kavanaugh case, but remain relatively silent about Fairfax. Delaney did not respond. But Levine, having returned to the floor, interjected, “It sends a message that we’re working hard!”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.