Virginia congressional Democrats hint at path for easing political crisis

Virginia congressional Democrats hint at path for easing political crisis
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By Gary Robertson and Katharine Jackson

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Virginia's congressional Democratic delegation have hinted at a possible pathway for easing a week-old political crisis that has embroiled Governor Ralph Northam and two fellow Democrats at the top of the state's executive branch.

A statement issued on Thursday by U.S. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and signed by seven other Virginia Democrats from the House of Representatives, still called for the governor to resign over incidents in the 1980s with racist overtones.

But it suggested a readiness to forgive the embattled state attorney general, Mark Herring.

Northam, 59, and Herring, 57, both white, have apologised in recent days for separate incidents during the 1980s in which they darkened their faces to imitate black performers. Northam additionally was revealed to have had a racist photo printed on his medical school yearbook page.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, an African-American, has meanwhile been accused of forcing himself sexually on a woman 14 years ago. He denies the allegation, saying the encounter was consensual.

All three men have come under pressure to resign. If Northam were to step down, the Democrats would lose the governorship to the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates, who is next in the line of succession.

But the group indicated they were withholding final judgment on Herring, widely seen as showing more sincere contrition, while he continued efforts to mend fences with Virginia's political establishment.

While saying they were "shocked and saddened" to learn of Herring's past, the U.S. lawmakers described him as having "earnestly reached out to each of us to apologise and express his deep remorse" and said he was holding "in-depth discussions with leaders and others in Virginia."

Herring, who has expressed intentions to run for governor, is seen by some as more sympathetic in part because he went to the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to confess his blackface experience before it became public, and because the episode occurred when he was just 19.

Northam, by his own admission, was 25 when he donned blackface to masquerade as pop star Michael Jackson. His transgression was compounded by the disclosure that his yearbook page bore a photo of one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam initially said he was one of the two individuals in the picture, then changed his story to say neither was him.

As for Fairfax, the congressional Democrats said the sexual assault allegations against the lieutenant governor "need to be taken very seriously," but stopped short of demanding a formal investigation.

(Reporting by Gary Robertson and Katharine Jackson in Richmond, Va., and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Jonathan Allen, Steve Gorman and Rich McKay; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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