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Despite Multiple Scandals, Top Virginia Officials Aren't Going Anywhere Soon

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax addresses sexual misconduct allegations made by two women against him and presented the results of a polygraph test, during a news conference in his office at the Capitol in Richmond, Va.
Steve Helber
Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax addresses sexual misconduct allegations made by two women against him and presented the results of a polygraph test, during a news conference in his office at the Capitol in Richmond, Va.

Lawmakers in Richmond have wrapped up their 2019 legislative session, less than two months removed from a cascade of scandals involving Virginia's top three elected officials, which captured the nation's attention for weeks.

Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface decades ago. Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor, was accused of sexual assault by two women.

All three Democrats remain in office despite continued, though less intense, calls for their resignations.

Now, state lawmakers will leave the Capitol and head home to their respective districts to turn their attention to November, when all 140 seats in Virginia's legislature will be up for re-election.

Campaign season starts now

In the months-long campaign ahead, Democrats will try to move beyond the embarrassment that consumed the Capitol and focus on trying to take back one or both legislative chambers.

Republicans, who hold a narrow two-seat advantage in both the House and the Senate, will likely remind voters repeatedly that it was the Democratic leadership in the state that cast the bright spotlight onto Virginia.

As for those leaders, it doesn't appear as if they are going anywhere soon. Their seats aren't up until 2021, with Northam unable to seek re-election because of term limits.

And it appears as though Virginia voters support those decisions, at least in the weeks following the scandals. According to the most recent poll available, a majority of voters said none of the three — Northam, Fairfax and Herring —should be impeached.

Will Fairfax and accusers testify publicly?

Fairfax spoke to reporters Wednesday in Richmond, a day after the second of two interviews with his accusers were broadcast on national television. He said, once again, that both encounters with the women were consensual and vehemently denied the sexual assault allegations.

He called on prosecutors in two states to investigate the allegations, an exercise that he says will do nothing other than clear his "good name." He also released the results from two polygraph tests, which he says he passed "on the first try."

"I do not believe that national television appearances or legislative hearings are the right vehicles to get at the truth," Fairfax said.

In late February, Delegate Rob Bell, a Republican, announced that both of Fairfax's accusers and the lieutenant governor himself would be invited to testify at a public hearing.

This week, in separate interviews with Gayle King on CBS, Fairfax's accusers continued to push for the chance to testify publicly while also giving tearful accounts and vivid details of what they say Fairfax did to them years ago.

Meredith Watson, who attended Duke University with Fairfax, said that he raped her in 2000. This week, her attorney issued a statement saying her client preferred a public hearing over an investigation.

"We have been focusing on the Virginia Assembly — and a full public hearing, not a months-long or years-long criminal investigation which is done in secrecy," Smith said.

Vanessa Tyson, now a political science professor in California, said Fairfax assaulted her in 2004 in a hotel room in Boston during the Democratic National Convention. An attorney for Tyson said she hoped the Virginia legislature would provide an avenue that "would provide due process to all parties" while letting Virginians decide whether Fairfax should keep his job.

Virginia's Republicans have blamed Democrats for blocking attempts to hold a hearing and get to the bottom of the accusations. If and when that public hearing will take place is an open question.

After his press conference Wednesday, Fairfax didn't take any questions from reporters. As he walked away from cameras, though, one journalist shouted, "At what point do you just resign?"

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.