Virginia Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, had just walked out of the House chamber after Tuesday’s legislative session when he was met by a wall of cameras, microphones and reporters asking for a comment.
“About what?” asked Lindsey.
It was an understandable response, given the fast-moving air of turmoil and scandal that has engulfed the state Capitol at the busiest time of the year. Though many Democratic lawmakers called on Gov. Ralph Northam to resign within hours of the governor’s apology for a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page, they’ve taken a more deliberate approach to the uncorroborated sexual assault allegation leveled against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
“My thoughts are the process will play itself out and the right decision will be made,” Lindsey said.
Fairfax — who would become governor if Northam steps down — has called the accusation false and a politically motivated “smear.”
“We need to learn more facts,” said Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, the House Democratic Caucus chair, who added that she takes all such allegations seriously.
According to The Washington Post, the allegation against Fairfax centers on a sexual encounter in a Boston hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Fairfax’s accuser told the Post that what began as a consensual encounter turned violent when he forced her to perform oral sex. Fairfax has adamantly denied the claim and has threatened to take legal action to defend himself.
The Democratic Party of Virginia released a statement Tuesday saying it will “continue to evaluate the situation” with Fairfax.
“All allegations of sexual assault deserve to be taken with profound gravity,” the party said.
A joint statement from the Democratic legislative caucuses struck a similar tone, saying “every individual deserves the opportunity to be heard” but “the facts here are still being determined.”
Several other Democrats said they were too busy voting and reviewing bills to process the Fairfax allegation.
“I’m really focusing on our work at hand right now,” said House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax.
The wait-and-see approach to the Fairfax accusation comes after several Virginia Democrats issued statements of support for survivors of sexual assault and harassment after last year’s high-profile confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Despite Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Kavanaugh assaulted her as a teenager, a claim Kavanaugh vehemently denied, Republicans seated Kavanaugh on the high court.
“To all survivors, please know we believe you, we appreciate your sharing your stories,” Filler-Corn said on Twitter on the day after Kavanaugh was confirmed. “Your voices have truly awakened our Country and the world. Please know your pain was not in vain.”
Attorney General Mark Herring is second in line for the governorship, behind Fairfax. Asked for comment on the Fairfax allegation, Herring spokeswoman Charlotte Gomer said Tuesday: “All allegations of assault and misconduct must be taken seriously and those who come forward deserve to be treated with respect and have their stories heard.”
Herring, too, expressed support for sexual assault survivors after the Kavanaugh drama.
“Be an ally and believe survivors when they share their story,” Herring said on Oct. 6 as he tweeted advice about what people upset by the Kavanaugh situation could do in response.
After legislators debated hundreds of bills Monday, Tuesday was the day for final votes. The House and the Senate each passed legislation to ban holding a cellphone for any reason while driving. The House passed a bill to raise the state’s tobacco age from 18 to 21, a bill that has already passed the Senate.
When their work was done, lawmakers couldn’t avoid questions about Fairfax.
Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, offered a cautious statement of support for the lieutenant governor.
“At this point in time, they were the only two people there and until there’s more there’s nothing,” Marsden said.
When asked if he believes Fairfax, Marsden said, “I haven’t heard the woman’s statements. ... I’ve never had any reason to doubt his veracity.”
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, was more direct.
“I believe him implicitly. I know him. He’s extremely honest. … I believe him completely,” Edwards said.
When asked if other Democratic senators believe Fairfax or are inclined to, Edwards said: “Absolutely. One hundred percent. We have absolute faith in him.”
When Sens. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, and Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, left a cloakroom after session, Senate Democratic staff members directed them to an exit where they could avoid waiting journalists.
Both senators later declined to comment on Fairfax.
Republicans also declined to weigh in on Fairfax’s situation. Asked if he could comment, House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, just said, “No.”
When Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, received Fairfax questions in a Capitol hallway, he asked if reporters wanted to talk about tax conformity.
Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, an ex-teacher, stopped to talk to a group of reporters and parried their questions for several minutes despite telling the media he is just a “regular member of the House of Delegates.” Ware insisted he has remained focused on policy work and wouldn’t speculate on what the next few days could bring.
“I do history,” Ware said. “I don’t do prophecy.”