RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) – Virginia’s highest-ranking Republican said on Thursday that he had never worn blackface, as its Democratic governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general grappled with career-threatening race or sexual assault scandals.
State House Speaker Kirk Cox, who is third in line to be governor, was asked by reporters at the Capitol in Richmond whether anything in his past might disqualify him from taking over the governor’s office.
“I have never appeared in blackface,” Cox, 61, said. “As you know, I was a schoolteacher, and that’s abhorrent.”
President Donald Trump weighed in from Washington, predicting the scandals would persuade Virginians to vote Republican in the 2020 elections.
Both Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, who is second in line to be governor, have admitted to wearing blackface while in college in the 1980s. With its historic ties to 19th-century U.S. minstrel shows in which white performers would caricature black slaves, blackface is widely seen as racist in modern America, though it remained a trope of popular television shows and movies through the 1980s.
Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who would take over the governor’s office should Northam step down, is facing allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman in 2004. Fairfax, 39, who is black, denies this, saying the sexual encounter was consensual.
Should all three Democrats resign, Cox would be elevated to governor, flipping control of a crucial swing state to Republicans in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. Democrats have made significant gains in the state legislature in recent years.
State Democrats and at least five Democratic 2020 White House contenders first urged Northam, 59, to resign after a racist photo from his medical school yearbook page was made public on Friday by a conservative media website. As the scandal spread, some prominent Democrats began taking more measured positions.
“Virginians will resolve their issues that they have there,” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the nation’s top Democratic official, told reporters on Thursday. “It’s sad because they have some very talented leaders there. But they have to have the confidence of the electorate.”
Despite Democrats’ professed commitment to root out bigotry and intolerance, Northam’s party might be motivated to rally behind him to avoid the prospect of Republicans suddenly assuming the governorship.
TRUMP WEIGHS IN
Trump, who has batted away a series of scandals involving himself and members of his administration, predicted the turmoil would help flip Virginia back to voting Republican in the 2020 elections.
“Democrats at the top are killing the Great State of Virginia,” Trump wrote on Twitter early on Thursday. “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken.”
After calling for Northam’s ouster, Attorney General Herring, 57, admitted on Wednesday that he too had worn blackface, in 1980, to impersonate a rapper at a college party.
Herring apologized for “a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity.” Herring has expressed an interest in running for governor himself.
Pressure on Fairfax intensified when his accuser, a college professor, released a statement alleging he had forced himself on her sexually in a hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
The allegation first surfaced on Sunday on the Big League Politics website, which two days earlier had published the photo from Northam’s yearbook of a man in blackface standing beside a masked individual dressed in the hooded robe of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.
Northam, whose term runs through 2022, initially said he was in the photograph, but backtracked a day later. Then he said he had worn blackface on another occasion in the 1980s to impersonate pop star Michael Jackson in a dance competition.
Writing and additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller