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Virginia's Legislative Session Proceeds Amid State's Political Crisis


The legislative session in Virginia resumes today. And impeachment might be on lawmakers' minds, but it may not be on the agenda. The state's top three officers, all Democrats, face scandals. Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring face calls to resign for appearing in blackface decades ago. And the lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, faces allegations of sexual assault. The state's Democratic Party and the legislative black caucus say both the governor and lieutenant governor should resign. But over the weekend, both leaders said they have no intention of doing so. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Since this firestorm in Virginia began, Governor Ralph Northam made his first official public appearance at a funeral Saturday. He also conducted an interview over the weekend with "CBS This Morning."


RALPH NORTHAM: I have thought about resigning, but I've also thought about what Virginia needs right now. And I really think that I'm in a position where I can take Virginia to the next level. And it will be very positive.

CORLEY: In a statement this weekend, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax said rather than resigning, he wants a full investigation of the sexual assault charges leveled against him by two women. The women say if there's an impeachment hearing, they're ready to testify. It's all left the state reeling and residents trying to cope with the news.

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing.

CORLEY: At Wesley United Methodist Church, African print Kente cloth lined the altar. And the congregation rose to sing the black national anthem in celebration of Black History Month. Pastor Rodney Hunter says the blackface scandal sparked plenty of turmoil, but the photos are 30 years old. And he believes the governor's fights to expand Medicaid and other policies show he has turned a page.

RODNEY HUNTER: I'm just against this slash-and-burn attitude. As soon as something comes out, everybody's ready to judge and to ask people to step down when it could be our time to dialogue.

CORLEY: As the congregation mingled after the service ended, Peggy Jones-Hawkins (ph) says she was troubled by the quick calls for resignations over the blackface photos.

PEGGY JONES-HAWKINS: If we would pull all our yearbooks, we would see a whole lot of things that we're not happy that we did. But when do we heal?

CORLEY: Twenty-three-year-old college student Tayvon Armstrong (ph) is all for the top Democrats leaving office. He says even though Lieutenant Governor Fairfax claims the encounters he had with the two women accusing him of sexual assault were consensual, he should step down.

TAYVON ARMSTRONG: Well, when you have two other women to counteract that compared to just your one statement, I'm not too sure on that one.

CORLEY: Over at Mama J's, a popular Richmond soul food restaurant, Chuck Small (ph), who works in banking, says he's looking at the job Governor Northam is doing now. And he should stay on the job. And when it comes to the lieutenant governor stepping down, Small says...

CHUCK SMALL: There is no way he should resign. There is no way.

CORLEY: It's all about due process, says Small. But Emerald Fleming (ph), a 20-year-old George Mason college student, rolls her eyes when she hears that kind of talk.

EMERALD FLEMING: 'Cause it's just all the same. Oh, it was consensual; it was this and that; blah, blah, blah; it happened, and she's kind of, like, making it up. But I don't think that's the case at all.

CORLEY: Faith leaders say they'll show up to rally at the Capitol today to tell lawmakers there should be no rush to judgment, though. Daphne Bowman (ph) just finishing her meal agrees, and says she doesn't see why there should be any attempt to impeach Virginia's lieutenant governor.

DAPHNE BOWMAN: We have a president that is doing all sorts of things, and nobody's trying to impeach him. So I believe it should just go through the process, and then we'll see what happens.

CORLEY: Bowman says whatever does happen, the political chaos in Virginia has certainly been a mess. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.