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Possible impeachment could further upend Virginia politics

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, and his wife Pam, watch as the casket of fallen Virginia State Trooper Lucas B. Dowell is carried to a waiting tactical vehicle during the funeral at the Chilhowie Christian Church in Chilhowie, Va., Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019. Dowell was killed in the line of duty earlier in the week. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, Pool)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers on Monday will reluctantly face the unprecedented prospect of impeaching the state’s second most powerful leader as they struggle to address revelations of past racist behavior and allegations of sexual assault roiling its highest levels of office.

At least one lawmaker said he will try to pursue impeachment of Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax after two women accused Fairfax of sexual assault in the 2000s, a move that experts believe would be a first in Virginia. Fairfax has vehemently denied the claims and called for authorities, including the FBI, to investigate.

There’s little sign of broad appetite for impeachment, with lawmakers set to finish this year’s session by the month’s end. But the Legislature is swirling with questions about lines of succession and the political fallout for Democrats should the governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general leave office, willingly or not.

Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both Democrats, are embroiled in their own scandal after acknowledging they wore blackface in the 1980s . Northam, a pediatric neurologist, said Sunday that he considered resigning but that he’s “not going anywhere” because the state “needs someone that can heal” it.

Northam said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that it’s been a difficult week since a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced, showing a person wearing blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, then denied it the next day, while acknowledging that he did wear blackface to a dance party that same year.

“Virginia needs someone that can heal. There’s no better person to do that than a doctor,” Northam said. “Virginia also needs someone who is strong, who has empathy, who has courage and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere.”

The scandals have become a full-blown crisis for Virginia Democrats. Although the party has taken an almost zero-tolerance approach to sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era, a housecleaning in Virginia could be costly: If all three Democrats resigned, Republican state House Speaker Kirk Cox would become governor.

Political considerations will be key to what comes next. Virginia is among a handful of states electing lawmakers this year, and Democrats had hoped to flip the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Democratic Del. Patrick Hope said he wants to introduce articles of impeachment Monday against Fairfax, who is black. Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson have accused him of sexual assault and offered to testify at any impeachment hearing.

The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they are victims of sexual assault, but both women have come forward voluntarily.

Watson alleges Fairfax raped her while they were students at Duke University in 2000, her attorney said in a statement. Tyson, a California college professor, accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004.

The lieutenant governor issued a statement Saturday again denying he ever sexually assaulted anyone and making clear he does not intend to immediately step down. Instead, he urged authorities to investigate.

“Frankly, we really want any entity with comprehensive investigative power to thoroughly look into these accusations,” Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke said. “There needs to be verification of basic facts about these allegations. It feels like something bigger is going on here.”

Some political observers said it’s possible impeachment would move forward in the House of Delegates — even if the threshold to start the process is remarkably high. However, lawmakers are set to leave town before February ends and may lack the time and resources to immediately take on the complicated issue.

“A clear sign of the depth of LG Fairfax’s political crisis is the near-absence of voices in Virginia politics this weekend publicly urging him to remain in office,” University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth said in an email.

If the Legislature is in session, the House would need a simple majority to vote to impeach Fairfax, said A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor. The Senate would then review evidence and hear testimony. That chamber would need a two-thirds vote to convict among senators who are present.

Another possibility: Fairfax simply hangs on as he disputes the allegations.

“Before Donald Trump, I would say with this kind of stuff, it’s impossible for a person to just hang on, put their head down and ignore it,” said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University. “Post-Donald Trump, I think what elected officials are willing to do has changed in some ways. So can he hang on? Certainly he can hang on.”

If Fairfax were to leave, it’s unclear who could replace him. Northam may try to appoint a Democrat, while Republicans could mount a legal challenge with the goal of getting Senate Pro Tem Steve Newman to serve as both a voting senator and temporary lieutenant governor.

Meanwhile, the attorney general’s future is unknown. Herring, who acknowledged wearing blackface at a party in 1980, would become governor if both Northam and Fairfax left office. Herring has apologized but has not indicated he would resign, despite his initial forceful call for the governor to step down.

Asked Sunday for his opinion on his subordinates, Northam told CBS that it’s up to them to decide whether they want to stay in office. He said he supports Fairfax’s call for an investigation into the sexual assault allegations. Of Herring, he said that “just like me, he has grown.”

Northam’s pledge Sunday to work on healing Virginia’s racial divide was his second in as many days. In his first interview since the scandal erupted, he told The Washington Post on Saturday that the uproar has pushed him to confront the state’s deep and lingering divisions, 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,” Northam said. “There are still some very deep wounds in Virginia, and especially in the area of equity.”

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Associated Press reporters Steve Helber in Chilhowie, Virginia; Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia; David McFadden in Baltimore; Julie Pace and Michael Biesecker in Washington; Jonathan Drew in Durham, North Carolina; Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland; Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston; and Thomas Beaumont in Mason City, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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