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Virginia's Governor And Lt. Governor Face Separate Controversies


Democrat Ralph Northam is still the governor of Virginia, despite calls from members of his own party to resign because of a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. The picture shows two people - one in blackface and another in a KKK hood and robe. The Virginia Democrat first apologized, then later denied that he was in the photo.

If Northam ends up concluding that the pressure is too much to prevent him from governing and he ends up stepping down, he would be replaced by his Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. Now, Fairfax is facing a controversy of his own. We're joined now by reporter Mallory Noe-Payne, of member station WVTF, on the line from Richmond, Va. Mallory, what can you tell us about the allegation against the lieutenant governor?

MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: So a conservative blog - actually the same one that first published the photo of Northam from the yearbook - published an allegation of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor. The allegation is from a while ago, before he was married, when he was in his mid-20s. The accuser hasn't spoken publicly. So there's really not much that we know about it at this point, except for that the lieutenant governor vehemently denies the accusation. He presides over...

MARTIN: Not just - go ahead. Finish your thought.

NOE-PAYNE: He presides over the State Senate. So he was working, as usual, at the Capitol yesterday. And he stepped out of the Senate, and reporters surrounded him, gave him the chance to respond. And, you know, he came out, and he said that the accusation is completely false.

MARTIN: He didn't just deny the allegation. He laid out what he believes to be a political smear, right? Is he laying blame at anyone's foot?

NOE-PAYNE: Not specifically. Progressive PACs did put out a statement suggesting that Northam's own team or Democrats could be behind the the leak of the accusation. At this point in time, he hasn't said that's the case. He said that the timing is a little bit conspicuous. But that could refer to the fact that a conservative blog published the accusation first or just that the woman herself chose to to step up now.

MARTIN: What is Governor Northam's office saying at this point?

NOE-PAYNE: Very little. It's been more than 36 hours since his last public appearance or public statement of any kind. That was, of course, at that press conference on Saturday. At that point, he said he wanted more time to try to further build up the case that he is not pictured in that racist photo that was on his yearbook page. As of late in the afternoon yesterday, his spokeswoman told me that they were still actively following leads in order to try to prove that. So I think there is a sense that he is still wanting and trying to vindicate himself.

MARTIN: What are voters telling you, Mallory? I mean, does Northam have any grassroots support right now?

NOE-PAYNE: I have spoken to a lot of voters in the past few days. I've spoken to maybe two who have said they still support him - so by and large, no. You know, I spoke to one voter who campaigned for him and told me specifically that he's taking his vote back. So the support among not just his own party and the Republicans but among his voting base and people who worked for him isn't there anymore.

MARTIN: I mean, we should just point out Democrats made gains in last year's elections across Virginia - turning it at least more shades of blue. What does this scandal mean for the party's long-term health in Virginia?

NOE-PAYNE: So every year in Virginia is an election year. This November, it's all 140 state lawmakers who are up for election. And there's a lot on the line for Democrats here because last time the House of Delegates was up for election, Democrats came within just one seat - a very close margin of taking back the majority. And they really have their eyes set on the majority this November. And if they don't have someone at the top of the ticket or at the top of the party who can campaign and support their candidates, it's going to hurt them.

MARTIN: All right. But as of now, Ralph Northam's still the governor of Virginia. Reporter Mallory Noe-Payne, from member station WVTF in Richmond, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

NOE-PAYNE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a freelance reporter and producer based in Richmond, Virginia. Although she's a native Virginian, she's most recently worked for public radio in Boston. There, she helped produce stories about higher education, including a nationally-airing series on the German university system. In addition to working for WGBH in Boston, she's worked at WAMU in Washington D.C. She graduated from Virginia Tech with degrees in Journalism and Political Science.