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Political Scandals Envelop Virginia's Top Government Officials


When President Trump delivered his State of the Union speech the other night, nearly all members of Congress and the Cabinet attended. One Cabinet member was the designated survivor, designated to stay away, just in case of calamity. If the state of Virginia were to take such a precaution, it might need to designate one top official to hide out from scandal. The top three officials in the state are all facing serious questions. Governor Ralph Northam faces pressure to resign over an old racist photo. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax is now publicly accused by a woman who says he sexually assaulted her in 2004. And now the state's third ranking official, Attorney General Mark Herring, has admitted that he donned blackface at a college party in the 1980s.

NPR's Sarah McCammon has been covering all of this in the state where she lives, and she's in our studios today. Hi there, Sarah.


INSKEEP: OK. Justin Fairfax. We'd heard about these allegations for a couple of days, but now we have an accuser who has told her story in detail and on the record.

MCCAMMON: That's right. They first surfaced on a conservative blog and were then later described in The Washington Post. But Vanessa Tyson, a politics professor from California, is the accuser. We had not named her until yesterday, when she did come forward with a statement through her law firm detailing her allegation against the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Justin Fairfax. She says, quote, "what began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault." And she says she told her story initially to The Washington Post and decided to come forward now publicly. The Post had decided not to publish that story after, they say, being unable to corroborate either her side or Fairfax's. But she says she wants to set the record straight, and she says she's coming forward with tremendous anguish.

INSKEEP: This was in 2004, when both were working at the Democratic Convention. The events...

MCCAMMON: In Boston.

INSKEEP: In Boston. And the disputed events took place in a hotel room, and this kind of classic story of someone who might have said yes to one thing but says she did not say yes to everything she was made...


INSKEEP: ...Made to do.

MCCAMMON: She said it escalated into a nonconsensual situation.

INSKEEP: And what'd Fairfax say about all of this?

MCCAMMON: Well, he's denied this repeatedly, and yesterday he put out a new statement calling the allegations surprising and hurtful, and he called for respect for the accuser but said he had to dispute her account of what happened. He also said he wanted to emphasize, quote, "how important it is for us to listen to women when they come forward with allegations of sexual assault or harassment." Now, he's hired a law firm, and the National Organization for Women is calling on him to resign.

INSKEEP: So Governor Ralph Northam faces calls to resign, which he's been resisting. You just said that Fairfax faces calls to resign, and he's not going there yet. He says that he is innocent of the accusation. And then there's Mark Herring, the attorney general. What'd he do?

MCCAMMON: Well, he's the third in line for the governorship. And he came out with a long statement yesterday saying that in 1980, at a party, when he was 19, he dressed as a rapper wearing a wig and brown face makeup. He says he's deeply sorry for the pain that caused, called those actions insensitive and callous. He had called, just a few days ago, for Governor Northam to resign for something similar, that blackface photo that surfaced from his medical school yearbook.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention one thing about Herring's statement? If I have this correctly, he said, among other things, I remember this incident. I've known for a long time this incident might cause me trouble whenever it resurfaced, and apparently now is the time.

MCCAMMON: And with all the spotlight on Virginia government, he has decided to step forward. And remember, Steve, all three of these men are Democrats, right? And Democrats have called for Northam to resign. Democrats I talked to are, I think, still figuring out what the next step is when it comes to the other two.

INSKEEP: And Herring is the only one who has actually admitted to the conduct that is at question.

MCCAMMON: Northam initially said he was in the photo and apologized then said he wasn't. But he says he did appear in blackface at...

INSKEEP: On another occasion.

MCCAMMON: ...Another party. So yes.

INSKEEP: Thanks for keeping us as straight as we can be on what's being accused or who's being accused of what. Sarah, thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Sure thing.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.