Virginia Democrats’ scandals puts spotlight on GOP speaker

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — With Virginia’s top Democrats mired in scandal, the fourth man in line to become governor is keeping a low profile even as his status rises.
Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox, a soft-spoken retired public school teacher, could play a key role in determining the fates of the three highest-ranking Democrats in state government. And their misfortune could help strengthen Cox’s shaky hold on a Republican majority in a state that’s been tilting blue under President Donald Trump.
He’s called on all three to resign but said his focus is the more mundane work of getting a state budget and other legislation passed. And he’s made clear that although he wants a part in addressing black leaders’ concerns about racial inequality, he’s not seeking a starring role.
“I certainly need to be part of that conversation; I need to be at the table. I would never presuppose I should lead in that arena,” Cox said in an interview with The Associated Press, adding he thinks Gov. Ralph Northam will have a difficult time leading as well.
Northam has been the subject of national ridicule after a bumbling response to a racist photo in his medical school yearbook. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has lost staff and been placed on leave at his law firm after two women accused him of sexual assault, which he denies. And Attorney General Mark Herring has all but disappeared after admitting to dressing in blackface in college, an admission that came days after condemning Northam for similar behavior.
In addition, the state’s top Republican senator, Tommy Norment, is facing questions about a yearbook he helped put together in college 50 years ago that included racial slurs and blackface.
The speaker, who is white, began his teaching career at a predominantly black middle school in Petersburg and enjoys close ties with several black lawmakers.
Northam and Herring have defied calls to resign and are looking for ways to rebuild trust with the black community. African-American leaders have said they want the governor and attorney general to advocate on specific issues — including the removal of Confederate statues and decriminalizing marijuana — that have previously been rejected by the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
Cox said House Republicans have a long record of promoting issues important to the black community and there’s “certainly” room to improve. But he gave no indication he’s weighing any dramatic gesture — like pushing for the removal of Confederate statues — that would help Northam and Herring’s cause.
Cox also has a major say on if and when the legislature decides to investigate the allegations made against Fairfax. A lawyer for one of his accusers asked Cox and other legislative leaders Tuesday to ensure that Fairfax’s accusers have a venue to tell their side of the story. Cox said it’s too soon to say what the legislature’s best course of action is, but has not entirely ruled out some kind of impeachment proceedings.
“We need to proceed with caution,” he said.
Before scandals plagued the Capitol, Cox was focused on trying to broaden the GOP’s appeal to suburban voters who have fled the Republican Party in the Trump era. He showed a willingness to make deals on kitchen table issues like curbing teen smoking and improving water quality.
His pragmatism took center stage last year, when his party took a drubbing in the 2017 elections and saw its once formidable advantage in the House of Delegates reduced to a razor-thin 51-49 majority.
Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe had tried in vain for four year to expand Medicaid, but the Republican speaker at the time, Bill Howell, was uninterested in striking a deal.
Cox, on the other hand, saw his party’s precarious position and quickly began talks with Northam. A small group of Republicans joined with Democrats to pass Medicaid expansion after securing concessions to include work requirements for recipients.
All 140 legislative seats will be up for election later this year, and what once looked like an uphill climb for Republicans now seems like more favorable terrain. With their top leaders politically wounded, Democrats will have a harder time raising money and energizing their base.
Cox said he’s not sure if the Democrats’ scandals will help in November but Republicans won’t take anything for granted.
“It’s our obligation to get into those communities and earn those votes,” he said.
For their part, black lawmakers have made clear they’re open to working with Republicans to advance their agenda.
“We need both sides of the aisle,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.