RICHMOND, Va. - Black lawmakers threatened to scuttle the General Assembly's budget deal Monday, and staffers resigned from the lieutenant governor's office as Virginia's political scandals began affecting the operation of government.
The executive branch seemed frozen in a state of suspended calamity, with its three leaders holding onto office despite widespread calls for resignation and no clear mechanism for moving them out.
An effort to consider impeaching Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax over sexual assault allegations went nowhere as lawmakers pointed out that he denies the charges and that there is no obvious way to commission an investigation.
Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both Democrats, are under fire for racist incidents from their past, but they have not been accused of crimes that would rise to the level of impeachment. Because Virginia is the only state to prohibit a governor from serving consecutive terms, Northam won't have to answer to voters again. It's up to each man to decide his own political fate, and none is budging.
Four staffers working for Fairfax quit on Friday, leaving him with a skeleton crew. Two were from his government office - policy director Adele McClure and scheduler Julia Billingsly - and they were joined by the two employees of his We Rise Together political action committee, David Mills and Courtney McCargo.
Mills, a former executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, is married to state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, the vice chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which has called on Fairfax to step down. He confirmed his decision to quit but would not elaborate.
McClure, Billingsly and McCargo did not return messages Monday.
"The lieutenant governor's office is a tiny office," said Lawrence Roberts, chief of staff for Fairfax. "The governor's office has 100,000 state employees. The lieutenant governor has four. So half his staff remains, and his two most senior people remain."
Roberts said the incessant pace of the past two weeks is taking a toll on employees. "The pressure of constant incoming press, political (matters) and calls - our phones ring every five seconds, and just trying to clear your voicemail is impossible," he said.
The staffers left for individual reasons not related to Fairfax's performance or abilities, he said. They were were valuable but could be replaced "if we have the time and space to make intelligent decisions," he said.
The departures were first reported by Richmond Times Dispatch.
Fairfax has been accused by two women of sexual assaults in 2000 and 2004, and he strongly denies both allegations. He has called for an investigation, but he otherwise continued with his usual duties Monday of presiding over the Senate.
"Due process is at the heart of our constitutional democracy in order to get to the truth and be true to what we are as Americans. . . . Everyone deserves to be heard," Fairfax said Sunday night in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. "Even when faced with those allegations, I am still standing up for everyone's right to be heard. But I'm also standing up for due process."
Fairfax sounded upbeat and relaxed during the interview. Asked whether he was going to resign, he said flatly, "No."
He spent the weekend in Northern Virginia with his family. He and his wife went to services at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria on Sunday morning, where he said the couple were well received.
Meanwhile, the law firm where Fairfax has been a partner since September, Morrison & Foerster, has hired an outside firm to conduct its own investigation into the allegations against Fairfax, and Fairfax has taken a paid leave of absence while it is pending, the firm said.
An attempt by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, to introduce articles of impeachment against Fairfax was shut down by House Democrats after an emotional conference call Sunday night, in which they debated the proper procedure and viability of such a plan, given that the alleged assault - which Fairfax describes as consensual sexual conduct - did not take place during his tenure as lieutenant governor, according to people on the call.
The situation has created another uncomfortable dynamic for Democrats as they ponder whether to force out Fairfax, a black rising star in the party, while white men accused of racism stay in office.
The allegations against Fairfax inspired BET co-founder Robert Johnson to step in with a proposal for how to settle the dispute.
He is offering to spend up to $150,000 to hire a law firm jointly selected by Fairfax and his two accusers - Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson - to undertake an impartial investigation into the sexual assault allegations. He would like the parties to choose a firm with a black attorney to lead the probe, results of which would be made public.
"If I can play a minor role in getting at the truth wherever the truth lies," Johnson said, "then this will benefit the African-American community and it will benefit the parties involved because they have said they want the truth and nothing but the truth."
Tyson's representatives said no to Bob Johnson's offer, and Watson's lawyers sent a statement saying she wants the General Assembly to hold public hearings.
"Meredith Watson asks the Virginia legislature to hold hearings, regardless of what they are called, and to reject a secret and delayed proceeding," lawyer Nancy Erika Smith 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."
Democrats who had struggled over the weekend with the impeachment question spent most of Monday huddling over the state budget. A deal hammered out last week by Republican leaders of the House and Senate, brokered by Northam's office and endorsed by top Democrats had seemed to solve an impasse that was preventing Virginia from processing tax returns filed by residents.
But members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus who studied the deal said recent events put it in a new light.
Northam said in interviews Saturday and Sunday that he wants to stay in office to use the rest of his term to seek racial reconciliation and equity. He has been ignoring calls from nearly every state and national Democrat to resign over a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page that shows one person in blackface and another in KKK robes.
Northam initially took responsibility for the photo. But the next day, he said it wasn't him, although he admitted to darkening his face for a dance contest later that same year. Several days later, Herring admitted to darkening his face for a college party in 1980, when he was 19.
Members of the Black Caucus, who have called on Northam to step down, said the first test of the governor's rhetoric is the spending plan - the biggest legislation they face this year.
And, they said, it doesn't measure up.
Where Northam had initially proposed increasing the amount of Earned Income Tax Credit returned to low-income working families, the compromise deal eliminates that idea. The budget proposals tied to the package are stingier in many categories that affect low-income and minority communities - with cuts in school funding for at-risk students, for instance, and bigger cuts in school districts with large numbers of minority students than majority white districts.
"Equity looks like taking a long and hard look at policies that we are passing and how it impacts all Virginians. Equity does not look like the deal before us," Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, said in a floor speech when the tax bill came up for a vote. "And there will be space for reconciliation talks, maybe even some kumbaya moments. . . . (But) right now, our first step that we can take towards true racial and economic equity is to vote no on this bill."
All 16 members of the Black Caucus voted against the tax bill, joined by a handful of other Democrats to deprive it of the 80 votes needed to go into immediate effect. Without that support - a procedural move to allow an emergency clause - the measure would not become law until July and would delay tax refunds for millions of Virginians.
Faced with the rebellion, which seemed to catch Democratic leaders off guard, the House went into recess multiple times. Members of the Black Caucus met with Republican leadership - including Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights - and eventually swung around and supported the House version of the bill.
But they said they did so only after securing verbal commitments to pursue funding in the state budget for areas that affect low-income and minority populations. That could happen either through amendments to the budget bill, the tax bill or in budget negotiations between the two chambers.
"It's really, really in negotiations right now," one Black Caucus member said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. "Now that they know what the priorities are, it's the budget staff now that has to make it work."
"We had a good conversation about where our funding priorities are and a good, healthy conversation about where we can find common ground and what we can agree on," Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond, said. "A lot of focus is oftentimes on where we disagree, but we wanted to keep our conversation on those areas where we agree and where everybody agrees we need more investment."
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The Washington Post's Fenit Nirappil, Jenna Portnoy and Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.
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Video: Virginia's Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax told reporters last week that he's "confident in the truth" after being accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2004.(Lee Powell/The Washington Post)