RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - A firestorm of scandals embroiling Virginia's governor and two fellow Democrats at the top of the state's executive branch spread to the Republican leader of the state Senate on Thursday as U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in to stoke the political crisis.
Trump, who has weathered a wide range of scandals involving himself and members of his administration, predicted the turmoil in Virginia would help flip the state back into the Republican column in the 2020 presidential elections.
"Democrats at the top are killing the Great State of Virginia," the Republican president wrote on Twitter early on Thursday. "If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken."
Trump's tweet came hours before state Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment acknowledged a media report that he was managing editor of a 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook awash with racist images and slurs.
The revelation echoed a controversy that first enmeshed the state's top Democrat, Governor Ralph Northam, last Friday.
Northam, a former U.S. Army doctor who took office a year ago, has resisted mounting pressure to resign since a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced last week. He admitted to once having worn blackface that year to impersonate pop star Michael Jackson.
His disclosure stirred an outcry across partisan lines in Virginia, a key swing state in U.S. presidential politics whose seat of government, Richmond, is in many ways still grappling with its legacy as the former capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
No sooner was the spotlight put on Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax - first in line to succeed Northam and who would become only the second African-American to lead the state - then Fairfax himself came under a cloud.
Fairfax, 39, noncommittal about whether Northam, 59, should resign, stands accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a Boston hotel room in 2004. He denied the allegation again on Wednesday as his accuser came forward. He insisted their encounter was consensual.
Also on Wednesday, the man who is second in line to succeed Northam if he steps down, Attorney General Mark Herring, 57, acknowledged he, too, once donned blackface - a practice dating to 19th-century minstrel shows caricaturing slaves - to masquerade as a rapper.
Herring, who like Northam is white and apologised for his past behaviour, had previously called for the governor to quit. All three Democrats largely avoided the public and news media on Thursday.
The improbable scenario of the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general being forced to resign en masse has raised the prospect of the Democrats losing the governorship to a Republican without an election.
Under the state constitution, the speaker of the House of Delegates, Republican Kirk Cox, 61, is third in line to succeed the governor.
Cox, who taught history in high school before joining the legislature in 1990, was asked by reporters on Thursday whether anything in his past might disqualify him from the governorship.
"I have never appeared in blackface," he answered. "As you know, I was a school teacher, and that's abhorrent."
In a statement issued after The Virginia-Pilot newspaper first reported on Norment, the senate majority condemned blackface as "abhorrent in our society," but stopped short of apologising for racist content published in the yearbook he helped oversee.
"As one of seven working on a 359-page yearbook, I cannot endorse or associate myself with every photo, entry, or word on each page," he wrote, adding he did not appear in or take any of the photos in question. He also said he supported the academy's racial integration that year.
Should Cox be elevated to governor, Republican control in both houses of Virginia's legislature would extend to the state's executive branch in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Calls for Northam's resignation among Virginia's Democratic establishment were nearly universal early on, with at least five Democratic candidates for the White House joining the chorus. But as the scandal deepened, some prominent Democrats began taking more restrained positions.
"Virginians will resolve their issues," U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the nation's top elected Democrat, told reporters on Thursday. "It's sad because they have some very talented leaders there. But they have to have the confidence of the electorate."
(Reporting by Gary Robertson in Richmond, Va., Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Jonathan Allen and Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker)
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