- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2019

RICHMOND — Embattled Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax on Monday defiantly presided over the Virginia Senate chamber where his own Democrats want him to resign over rape allegations but are unwilling to force him out.

Democrats said they were trying to stay focused on legislation, but they were being worn down by the scandal swirling around the party’s top leaders, with Gov. Ralph Northam and state Attorney General Mark Herring accused of racism for wearing blackface in the 1980s.

The rush to impeach Mr. Fairfax, who is accused of sexually assaulting two women during the 2000s, took an unexpected offramp Monday morning as the Arlington Democrat driving the effort hit the brakes. He said he needed more time to get fellow Democrats in line, based on feedback he received Sunday night in a conference call with the caucus.

“The impeachment process is about investigating to find the truth. I am open to discussions on other avenues that would accomplish the same goals,” Del. Patrick Hope said in announcing that he would not file articles of impeachment as expected.

Mr. Hope emphasized that believed Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, the two women who came forward with sexual assault allegations, and said they should “be heard in the most fair and just process possible.”

Ms. Tyson said Mr. Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him when they met as campaign aides at the 2004 National Democratic Convention in Boston.

Ms. Watson said she suffered a similar attack by Mr. Fairfax in 2000 when they were students at Duke University.

Both women said they are ready to testify at impeachment hearings to refute Mr. Fairfax’s denials and help remove him from office.

Whether they will have the opportunity is now in doubt.

“At this stage, we are at a standstill,” said Del. Mark L. Keam, a Democrat from Fairfax County.

Mr. Fairfax, 39, who was a rising star in the Democratic Party, has insisted the encounters with both women were consensual. He has said that he wants an FBI investigation to clear his name.

“We have called for an independent investigation and I am still very confident in the truth,” Mr. Fairfax said as he entered the Senate chamber, where he serves as the presiding officer.

Meanwhile, at least four members of Mr. Fairfax’s staff have quit in the week since Ms. Tyson made the first rape allegation.

The Democrats are in a quandary. They want Mr. Fairfax out but fear impeachment hearings could make matters worse.

Hearings would focus more attention on the rape allegations and create troubling optics of Democrats pillorying Mr. Fairfax, who is black, while giving a pass to Mr. Northam and Mr. Herring, both of whom are white.

And questions persist whether the alleged offenses committed by Mr. Fairfax, Mr. Northam or Mr. Herring meet the state Constitution’s strict rules for impeachment, which are largely limited to conduct in office.

All of the alleged offenses occurred years ago.

Doing nothing, however, could sour voters on Democrats in this year’s elections in which every General Assembly seat is up for grabs, likely helping Republicans hold on to a thin majority.

A backlash from black and female voters also could affect the 2020 elections in a state that only recently swung from Republican to Democratic. Republicans in Richmond are quietly mulling a return of red-state days.

Ms. Watson’s New Jersey lawyer, Nancy Erika Smith, blamed Mr. Fairfax for denying the victims due process at an impeachment hearing.

“Meredith Watson asks the Virginia Legislature to hold hearings, regardless of what they are called, and to reject a secret and delayed proceeding,” she said. “Both victims of his sexual assault have agreed to testify and they will produce witnesses and documents to show their honesty and good character. Please do not allow these women to be further victimized by delay and defamation.”

As he halted the impeachment drive, Mr. Hope renewed his call for Mr. Fairfax to resign, as did the House and Senate Democratic caucuses.

“Lt. Gov. Fairfax should have already resigned. It is atrocious that he will be presiding over the Senate of Virginia today with these allegations. The message being sent to victims of sexual assault is chilling,” Mr. Hope said.

Mr. Northam also bucked unrelenting calls for his resignation. He is being dogged by questions after a CBS News interview in which he referred to the first slaves arriving in Virginia 400 years ago as “indentured servants.”

The governor responded to criticism of his remark by saying in a statement, “The fact is, I’m still learning and committed to getting it right.”

Inside the Senate chamber, Mr. Fairfax faced a room full of senators who grimly pressed on with legislative business with two weeks left in the short session.

“We are focused on our jobs and not letting [Mr. Fairfax] impact us getting our jobs done,” said state Sen. Dave Marsden, a Northern Virginia Democrat. “We cannot let these things distract us.”

But he said he did not know what was the path forward with Mr. Fairfax, Mr. Northam or Mr. Herring.

“We are in uncharted territory,” he said.

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