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General Assembly Week Six:
Scrambling For Cover
By Stephen J. Rossie

Richmond – No one yet knows how the unprecedented controversies over the commonwealth’s top three elected office holders will unfold. There are hints and rumors of more embarrassing, if not legal, ramifications to come — more (and more distasteful) pictures of Democrat Attorney General Mark Herring and perhaps another allegation of sexual assault against Democrat Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.

It all kind of gives Governor Ralph Northam some breathing space and an opportunity to ride out his controversy, despite daily protests. In the meantime, he’s canceled regularly scheduled interviews, including a monthly call-in show despite the radio station agreeing to take only e-mailed questions. The danger of bunkering in is that it doesn’t prevent more examinations of his past or still another slip up, as when he confused indentured servitude with slavery on a CBS interview.

Something else may yet turn up. At the very least, people are adding up two and two and two. For example, Northam refused to shake the hand of his black opponent, Republican E.W. Jackson, in their only televised debate during the 2013 campaign for lieutenant governor. In 2017, he had the Democrat Party of Virginia remove a picture and biography of Fairfax from a campaign flyer that featured the party’s three statewide candidates.

But it is Fairfax who faces the most serious scrutiny. After the Northam blackface embarrassment, allegations surfaced that Fairfax sexually assaulted a woman in 2004. Most people in Capitol Square think Northam’s people uncovered the incident to inoculate the chief executive from resigning. That hasn’t stopped black Democrat leaders from insisting Northam resign, while defending Fairfax — if your guy doesn’t go, our guy isn’t going.

In the immediate aftermath of the first allegation against Fairfax, word spread that a second one was imminent. It dropped, all right, but not the one rumored, so a third one — one that allegedly happened in 2017, and one well within the stature of limitations necessitating a criminal investigation — is supposedly out there. Meanwhile, four of his five staff resigned.

Not that any of this has affected the work of lawmakers. To their credit, the session has been issue focused. The daily media crush has subsided, for now, and the flow of legislation has proceeded. Fairfax seems undisturbed in his daily role of presiding over the Senate, joking with senators and carrying out his duties.

House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (RWilliamsburg) have been credited with staying level headed and keeping their eyes on the flow of bills through the committee system. Which is not to say there hasn’t been legislative blowback from Northam’s troubles. Politically kneecapped, the governor capitulated on the GOP’s tax conformity bill to alleviate 600,000 Virginia taxpayers from a $1.2 billion tax increase because of incongruity with the new federal tax law.

The centerpiece of Northam’s legislative agenda was to take that windfall and spend it primarily on healthcare and education — despite Medicaid expansion last session. But he quickly acquiesced as tax filers became increasingly antsy and he had no cover. All of a sudden, the Republican plan became a great bipartisan effort with Democrat lawmakers scrambling for cover after lambasting it — especially Delegate Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax) — for weeks. Self-described socialist Delegate Lee Carter (D-Prince William) kept true to his core, though, and was the only one to vote no in the House Finance Committee.

Now the focus is on the budget. With all the swirling winds around Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol, the most ironic thing of all is that Republicans may get more done with one-seat majorities than they ever did with supermajorities.


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