RICHMOND, Va. — Justin E. Fairfax’s refusal to resign as lieutenant governor of Virginia in the face of two allegations of sexual assault has presented Democrats with an excruciating choice: whether to impeach an African-American leader at a moment when the state’s other two top leaders, both white, are resisting calls to quit after admitting to racist conduct.
Less than a week after Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring said they wore blackface as young men, Mr. Fairfax on Friday faced a second assault accusation in three days. He is now under intense pressure to resign or face impeachment, transforming what had been a crisis for Virginia Democrats into a searing dilemma for the national party.
The political turmoil for Democratic leaders this weekend is unfolding at the intersection of race and gender, and risks pitting the party’s most pivotal constituencies against one another. If Democrats do not oust Mr. Fairfax, at a time when the party has taken a zero-tolerance stand on sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era, they could anger female voters.
But the specter of Mr. Fairfax, 39, being pushed out while two older white men remain in office — despite blackface behavior that evoked some of the country’s most painful racist images — would deeply trouble many African-Americans.
“I think the Democratic Party would lack credibility if they followed a double standard,” said Representative Karen Bass of California, who is the head of the Congressional Black Caucus. Ms. Bass said that both Mr. Northam and Mr. Fairfax should step down.
On Saturday, an adviser to Mr. Fairfax said the lieutenant governor was deeply distraught over the allegations and had no intention of resigning. Mr. Fairfax, who says he is innocent, wants an independent investigation to ensure both sides are heard and their stories assessed, said the adviser, who spoke under condition of anonymity to share private conversations. But there is no apparatus for such an inquiry in Virginia.
“It’s a nightmare right now,” said Representative A. Donald McEachin, a Virginia Democrat who can trace his history here back to Revolutionary War-era slaves.
“We’ve worked hard on the Democratic brand for so many years,” he said, “and now we have to deal with this.”
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Almost all of Virginia’s Democratic leaders and lawmakers on Friday night called on Mr. Fairfax to resign and a legislator vowed to introduce articles of impeachment if Mr. Fairfax did not quit by Monday. The state Democratic Party, after a conference call of its steering committee on Saturday morning in which there was near-unanimous support for Mr. Fairfax to resign, issued a statement saying he no longer had “their confidence or support” and should quit.
Gov. Northam also insists he will not resign. He does not face an imminent impeachment threat, and neither does Mr. Herring, the attorney general and second in line to the governor, who has been effusively apologizing for once wearing blackface. The governor, in an interview on Saturday with The Washington Post, said he intends to use the remainder of his term to pursue racial reconciliation and has been reading books like “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Alex Haley’s “Roots” to learn more about experiences of African-Americans.
Just how far Virginia Democrats go to confront these three statewide officials — who swept into office in 2017 on the first wave of backlash to President Trump’s election — will send a signal about how committed they are to taking a hard line on racial and sexual transgressions, and will echo well beyond this state’s borders.
To some Democrats, Mr. Fairfax’s alleged conduct is the most serious because he is the only one of the three accused of a crime. But that does not make the political quandary any less torturous at a moment when the party’s 2020 presidential primary is getting underway with more black and female candidates than have ever run for the White House.
“To show a firm grasp of the obvious, the optics would be difficult and the substance would be difficult,” said State Senator J. Chapman Petersen, who is white, about how it would look if Mr. Northam and Mr. Herring remained in office while Mr. Fairfax was exiled.
Women and African-Americans have never been more politically powerful: The Democrats’ 40-seat win in the House midterm elections in November, as well as their 2017 triumph in the top Virginia races, was powered in no small part by those voters. And with Republicans barely hanging on to their legislative majority in the Virginia Capitol, Democrats were counting on the same two blocs to propel them to victory in this fall’s election of all 140 delegates and state senators.
Ultimately, some Democrats here said, they must begin the process of emerging from the wreckage that is the executive branch of Virginia state government by turning to what is perhaps their most loyal constituency: black women.
And barely hours after Meredith Watson came forward on Friday saying she was raped by Mr. Fairfax in 2000 when they were students at Duke University, several senior Virginia Democrats began making the case that should Mr. Northam continue his refusal to resign, he ought to appoint State Senator Jennifer McClellan to replace Mr. Fairfax if he quits or is impeached. (It is not certain that Mr. Northam could appoint any successor to Mr. Fairfax, scholars said, because of conflicting provisions and interpretations of the Virginia Constitution and state law.)
Ms. McClellan, who is black, is a longtime Richmond legislator who was already thought to have statewide ambitions and has a close relationship with Senator Tim Kaine.
On Saturday morning, an adviser to Mr. Northam said the governor was not yet considering Ms. McClellan or any other potential appointees for a post Mr. Fairfax still holds.
Delegate Charniele L. Herring, who is the chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus and a former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said, “African-American women have been a core, consistent base, and it’s important that we as a party reconcile with them.”
But some of the country’s most prominent black women were just as confounded about the way forward as any Democrat in Virginia.
“This has been one of the most difficult political weeks of my life,” said Donna Brazile, the former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. “There’s no playbook for this.”
Even before Ms. Watson made her accusation Friday, Mr. Fairfax was in grave jeopardy. He infuriated Virginia’s three freshman Democratic women in the congressional delegation with his dismissive treatment of the initial assault claim made by Vanessa C. Tyson, and then compounded his difficulty by not calling any of them. Similarly, he had not called Mr. McEachin, one of two African-Americans in the delegation, before Ms. Watson spoke out.
“You don’t need to be a woman to be upset about the way Justin has handled this,” Mr. McEachin said.
It came to no surprise to Virginia Democrats, then, when Mr. McEachin and the three female lawmakers — Representatives Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton — were some of the earliest on Friday night to demand Mr. Fairfax resign.
As for Mr. Northam, the governor, he told his cabinet on Friday that he would not resign. In an email to state employees acknowledging that the state is in “uncharted waters,” he said: “You have placed your trust in me to lead Virginia forward — and I plan to do that.”
But some black Democrats are unhappy about the prospect of him remaining in office, after he acknowledged he wore shoe polish to go in blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance contest in 1984.
Yet Ms. Bass, the Congressional Black Caucus leader, and other Democrats offered some measure of praise for Mr. Herring, who revealed that he wore blackface to imitate a rapper as a University of Virginia undergraduate but has pleaded for forgiveness from the state’s black lawmakers.
“At least he came forward and seemed to be sincere and apologized,” Ms. Bass said.
Other national Democrats also praised Mr. Herring, who methodically reached out to nearly every prominent African-American lawmaker in Virginia, and said it was time the party reconsider its demands for instant accountability for the transgressors in its ranks.
“It’s unrealistic to expect politicians to have lived perfect lives — the general public doesn’t expect that, and they are much more forgiving than the Twitter outrage mob,” said Elisabeth Smith, a Democratic strategist, singling out Mr. Herring. “If anything, we’ve learned the importance of taking a step back and taking a deep breath before demanding these guys’ heads on a plate.”
But there is far less sympathy among black lawmakers in the Capitol for the governor, who has flip-flopped about whether he was in a racist photo that appeared on his medical school yearbook page.
“Northam called me Friday night and took ownership of that photo and said, ‘I’m sorry, that’s me in the photo,’” recalled Ms. Herring, who is not related to the attorney general. “Then, Saturday, moonwalks it back, and then adds some more pain with the description about how he needs to only put a light coat of shoe polish on because it’s hard to get off. He doesn’t get it.”
For Ms. Herring and other legislators, the controversies over blackface were painful reminders of the state’s not-so-distant past and its lingering prejudices. Ms. Herring said she had often thought about a particular red glow from her childhood: what she saw when a cross burned outside her Georgia home when she was 9.
And just a few blocks north of Virginia’s elegant state capitol, several black Richmonders were downright suspicious of Mr. Northam. The Virginia crisis began a week ago Friday when Mr. Northam’s yearbook page surfaced on a conservative website, with one photo featuring a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes, and Mr. Northam said he was in the photo and then, a day later, said he was not. Now it is Mr. Fairfax who is under far more pressure to resign or get impeached than Mr. Northam.
Deon Wright, 42, said he did not know what to think about the various parts of the political crisis. But one thing is certain, Mr. Wright said: “You’re more able to survive as a white man in America who wore blackface than as a black man that’s facing #MeToo accusations.”