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Clamor for ouster of top Democrats slows in Virginia

A group of black clergy and community leaders said they want to give Governor Ralph Northam a second chance. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Associated press 
A group of black clergy and community leaders said they want to give Governor Ralph Northam a second chance. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Associated press (Katherine Frey)

RICHMOND — The clamor for the resignation of Virginia’s top two politicians seemed to die down Monday, with some black community leaders forgiving Governor Ralph Northam over the blackface furor and calling for a fair hearing for Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax on the sexual assault allegations against him.

Over the past several days, practically the entire Democratic establishment rose up to demand fellow Democrats Northam and Fairfax immediately step down. But the tone changed markedly after the weekend.

A Democratic state lawmaker who had threatened to begin impeachment proceedings on Monday morning against Fairfax, Virginia’s highest-ranking black politician, set the idea aside after running into resistance.

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At the same time, several black clergy and civic leaders made it clear they are willing to give both Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring a second chance, while urging due process for Fairfax. Herring, like Northam, has admitted putting on blackface in the 1980s.

As the interlocking scandals engulfing Virginia’s top three elected Democrats developed, it became increasingly clear that it could look bad for the party if Fairfax were summarily pushed out and the two white men managed to stay in power.

‘‘The sort of irony that makes your head spin is that Herring and Northam are in trouble for behavior related to Virginia’s racial past. And yet it may be the only African-American statewide officeholder who, at the end of the day, gets in trouble,’’ Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Virginia’s Christopher Newport University. ‘‘This may get worse and more uncomfortable before it gets better — if it does get better.’’

If Northam stepped down, Fairfax would become the second African-American governor in Virginia history. If all three Democrats resigned, a Republican could become governor: GOP House Speaker Kirk Cox is next in the line of succession.

Late last week, amid widespread calls for Fairfax’s resignation, Democratic Delegate Patrick Hope, who is white, revealed plans to introduce articles of impeachment against the lieutenant governor on Monday. But Hope relented, citing both reaction from colleagues and online accusations he is a racist.

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Hours later, a group of eight black clergy and community leaders said during a news conference that they forgive Northam and want to give him a second chance. Former Richmond City Councilman Henry ‘‘Chuck’’ Richardson called Northam a ‘‘good and decent man’’ who has stood with African-Americans on issues important to them.

Separately, a set of black leaders listed steps they said Northam and Herring should take to redeem themselves during their remaining three years in office, including removing Confederate statues and raising more money for Virginia’s historically black colleges.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus did not withdraw its earlier call for Northam to resign. But the caucus chairman, Delegate Lamont Bagby, signaled a willingness to work with the governor on issues of importance to black lawmakers.

Of the three politicians under fire, Herring appeared to be in the least danger of being forced out. Black leaders have said they felt he earnestly apologized.

However, in a sign of the difficulties Fairfax will face in staying on the job, four of his staff members have resigned.

In interviews published Monday, Fairfax repeated his denials of the sexual assault allegations by Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson, who have offered to testify against him. The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they are victims of sexual crimes, but both women have come forward.

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Fairfax said he has never sexually assaulted anyone and deserves a chance to defend himself. ‘‘Everyone deserves to be heard. . . . Even when faced with those allegations, I am still standing up for everyone’s right to be heard,’’ he told the Washington Post.

Watson has said Fairfax raped her while they were students at Duke University in 2000.

Tyson, a California college professor, has accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex on him at a Boston hotel in 2004.

In an interview broadcast Monday, Northam provided a fuller explanation of his handling of the crisis, set off Feb. 1 by the discovery of a photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page of someone in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, then denied it a day later, while admitting he wore blackface to a dance contest that same year.