Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talks during an interview at the Governor's Mansion, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 in Richmond, Va. The embattled governor says he wants to spend the remaining three years of his term pursuing racial "equity." Northam told The Washington Post that there is a higher reason for the "horrific" reckoning over a racist photograph that appeared in his medical school yearbook. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via AP)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talks during an interview at the Governor's Mansion, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 in Richmond, Va. The embattled governor says he wants to spend the remaining three years of his term pursuing racial "equity." Northam told The Washington Post that there is a higher reason for the "horrific" reckoning over a racist photograph that appeared in his medical school yearbook. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via AP)

By ALAN SUDERMAN and BEN FINLEY

Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — After days of clamoring for resignations or impeachment, Virginia Democratic political and community leaders had second thoughts Monday as they confronted the racially combustible scandals that have engulfed the party's top three elected officials.
A state lawmaker who had threatened to begin impeachment proceedings against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax over sexual assault allegations set the idea aside. And a group of black clergy and community leaders asked for a pause in the widespread calls for Fairfax, Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring to resign.
Northam and Herring are under fire for wearing blackface in the 1980s.
Over the weekend, nearly the entire Democratic establishment rose up to demand the resignation of Fairfax — Virginia's highest-ranking black politician — after a second accuser came forward. But the momentum slowed Monday as it became clear that it could be problematic if Fairfax were pushed out and the two white men managed to stay in power.
If Fairfax were removed without a fair hearing on the sexual assault allegations, "we'd be opening ourselves up to allegations of racism," said Carol J. Pretlow, a political science professor at historically black Norfolk State University.
"There are some people in the community, particularly the younger people who I teach, who automatically say once a black person gets in office, then the effort is 'Let's see what we can do to discredit him,'" Pretlow said.
Similarly, Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Virginia's Christopher Newport University, said the way this plays out could look bad.
"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," Kidd said. "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. But 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 Del. Patrick Hope announced plans to start impeachment proceedings on Monday. But Hope relented, tweeting that he got "an enormous amount of sincere and thoughtful feedback" from colleagues after circulating a draft of his impeachment bill, and "additional conversations ... need to take place before anything is filed."
Hours later, the group of black clergy and community leaders called for a moratorium on demands that the three men step down.
The Rev. Rodney Hunter, co-director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and pastor of a Methodist church in Richmond, said Northam and Herring "are different people" than they were when they wore blackface more than three decades ago. And he said Fairfax deserves due process over the sexual assault allegations.
In interviews published Monday, Fairfax reiterated his denials of the 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 assault, but both women have come forward voluntarily.
Fairfax said he has never sexually assaulted anyone and deserves due process.
"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 alleges 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 more complete 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. The governor initially said he was in the photo, then denied it a day later, while admitting he wore blackface to a dance party that same year.
Northam, 59, told "CBS This Morning" that he mistakenly took responsibility for the picture because had never seen the image before.
"When you're in a state of shock like I was, we don't always think as clearly as we should," said Northam, who worked as a pediatric neurologist before entering politics late in life, when he was nearly 50.
But "when I stepped back and looked at it, I just said I know it's not me in the Klan outfit. And I started looking in the picture of the individual with blackface. I said that's not me either."
Northam told CBS it's up to his fellow leaders to decide whether they want to remain on the job. He said he supports Fairfax's call for an investigation, and as for Herring, "just like me, he has grown."
Of the three men, Herring, who acknowledged wearing blackface at a college party in 1980, appeared to be in the least danger of being forced out. Black leaders said they felt he earnestly apologized.
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Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia. Contributing to this report were Associated Press reporters Denise Lavoie in Richmond; David McFadden in Baltimore; and Julie Pace and Michael Biesecker in Washington.