(Reuters) – Virginia Republican lawmakers on Friday said they plan a hearing where two women who have accused the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor of sex assault can testify about their allegations.
FILE PHOTO: Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax presides over the state’s senate in Richmond, Virginia, U.S., February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake/File Photo
The hearing would keep alive a series of scandals that enveloped three top state Democrats. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax was accused of sex assault while Governor Ralph Northam and the state’s attorney general admitted to having appeared in blackface in the 1980s.
The accusations, which hit on hot-button themes that have become a central part of Democratic politics, rattled the party establishment in a swing state that is expected to play a key role in deciding the 2020 presidential election.
Virginia state Delegate Rob Bell during Friday’s session said he would schedule a committee hearing at which Fairfax and his two accusers could testify, local media reported. Bell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Meredith Watson, who accused Fairfax of raping her at Duke University in 2000 when they were both students, on Friday said in a statement released by her attorney, Erika Smith, that she “looks forward to testifying.”
The second woman, Stanford University academic Vanessa Tyson alleged that Fairfax had forced her to perform oral sex on him in 2004. A Tyson attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Fairfax, who has denied both allegations, on Friday called the hearings “political theater.”
“House Republicans want to pursue this historically unprecedented course of action because the accused is a popularly elected Democrat,” Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke said in a statement.
Reuters does not normally name victims of sex assault, but identified Fairfax’s two accusers because each has come forward publicly.
The scandal erupted when a conservative media outlet published Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page, which showed a photo of a person in blackface next to another wearing the robes of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan.
Northam denied appearing in the photo but admitted to dressing that year in blackface, which traces its history to 19th-century minstrel shows that mocked African-Americans and is seen as offensive by many Americans.
An Ipsos/University of Virginia Center for Politics poll this week showed Virginia residents were divided on Northam and Fairfax’s futures. A plurality, 35 percent, said they believed Fairfax should resign, with 25 percent saying he should not.
Some 43 percent said Northam should not resign, compared with 31 percent who said he should.
Reporting by Katharine Jackson in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman