Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) compared himself to George Floyd and Emmett Till, a teenage victim of lynching in the Jim Crow South, during Virginia’s live Democratic gubernatorial primary debate on Tuesday night.
Responding to a question about how to address racism in policing following the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis last May, Fairfax argued that his political rivals had subjected him to the same racist refusal to grant Black men due process that Floyd and Till died from.
Two women accused Fairfax of sexual assault in February 2019 just as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) faced pressure to resign over revelations that he had worn blackface three decades earlier.
Fairfax has consistently denied the allegations of assault.
On Tuesday night, he went a step further, accusing his four rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination of engaging in a racist rush to judgment. He singled out former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), the front-runner in the June 8 Democratic primary, for criticism.
“Everyone here on the stage called for my immediate resignation, including Terry McAuliffe, three minutes after a press release came out,” Fairfax said, referencing the press release issued by his second accuser on Feb. 8, 2019. “He treated me like George Floyd. He treated me like Emmett Till. No due process, immediately assumed my guilt. ”
“I have a son and I have a daughter,” Fairfax added. “I never want my daughter to be assaulted. I don’t want my son to be falsely accused.”
“It recalls a history in Virginia and in our nation where African Americans ― and particularly African American men ― are presumed to be guilty, are treated inhumanely, are given no due process and have their lives impacted ― in some cases, taken away in an instant.”
Fairfax’s first accuser, Vanessa Tyson, said he sexually assaulted her at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004.
His second accuser, Meredith Watson, said he assaulted her when they were college classmates at Duke University in 2000.
Fairfax is correct that all four of his Democratic opponents ― McAuliffe, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, Del. Lee Carter and then-Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy ― called for Fairfax’s resignation shortly after Watson came forward with her accusation.
McAuliffe indeed appears to have been the first to do so, though the others followed soon thereafter. Notably, McClellan and Carroll Foy were both members of the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus, which joined calls for Fairfax’s resignation mere hours after McAuliffe.
But Fairfax chose to direct his strongest words at McAuliffe, who is white. McAuliffe has faced criticism from some Black Virginians for his handling of policing issues during his tenure, as well as his decision to seek a second term as governor well after Fairfax, McClellan and Carroll Foy, all of whom are Black, had entered the race. (Carter, a white democratic socialist, is widely viewed as a long-shot candidate.)
Many critics immediately blasted Fairfax for the comparison, noting that, among other things, Floyd and Till were both killed ― a far cry from the damage to his reputation.
But Fairfax sought to paint them as part of the same pattern of anti-Black discrimination.
“The murder of George Floyd was horrific,” he said. “But it recalls a history in Virginia and in our nation where African Americans ― and particularly African American men ― are presumed to be guilty, are treated inhumanely, are given no due process and have their lives impacted ― in some cases, taken away in an instant.”
Fairfax, who maintains that he had consensual sex with the two women, has been aggressive in his denials of wrongdoing from the start. He immediately called for the FBI to investigate the claims, implying that he had nothing to hide and wanted “due process” before the law. A few months later, he took a polygraph test that his office said he passed.
Fairfax went on to sue CBS for $400 million for televising interviews with his accusers that he argued were libelous. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in February, and nothing appears to have come of Fairfax’s calls for an FBI probe.
Fairfax alleged on Tuesday night that The Washington Post had dismissed the charges as “false” and questioned “whether there was a rush to judgment.”
Fairfax’s campaign said he was referring to a July 2020 editorial in which the Post expressed some sympathy for Fairfax’s calls for a fairer hearing, even as it criticized his “intemperate” response to the allegations. Fairfax claimed that there was a witness to the alleged sexual encounter with Watson at Duke, but the Post noted that Watson’s attorney refused to answer the newspaper’s questions about the witness.
“Shouldn’t authorities in North Carolina, where there is no statute of limitations on rape, look into this matter, particularly because Ms. Watson claims to have been victim of a separate rape one year earlier at Duke by a prominent basketball player?” the Post asked.
Fairfax had, to this point, largely been written off by Virginia politics watchers as a serious contender.
But if name recognition is half the battle, Fairfax did his part with a debate-stealing moment that outshined any other exchange in the otherwise genteel forum.
Fairfax’s persistence has won him the support of a core contingent of Black Virginians resentful of what they see as the railroading of the highest-ranking Black elected official in the state.
“I believe in due process before the law,” said Tilly Blanding, a Fairfax County Democratic activist and former candidate for the House of Delegates, who is supporting Fairfax. “I really don’t feel that, especially as a Black man, he has been treated fairly.”
Fairfax’s allies have been especially piqued by what they regard as the greater fairness with which allegations against other, mostly white elected officials have been met.
For example, New York’s top-ranking Democrats called for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to resign in March, only after the governor had been accused of unwanted flirtations or touching by six women.
And unlike Fairfax, who has never had an official inquiry into his claims, the charges against Cuomo are being investigated by attorneys hired by the New York attorney general.
“Everyone else seems to get an investigation other than Justin Fairfax,” said Lauren Burke, a spokesperson for Fairfax’s campaign.
But Cuomo’s predicament also suggests that Fairfax’s comparisons of himself to a figure like Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old who was lynched and mutilated in 1954 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, might draw attention away from the underlying merits of Fairfax’s case.
At least one white Cuomo ally likened the governor’s predicament to Till as well, though Cuomo himself has not. Some Democrats in the state Assembly reportedly made the comparison as well.
The pushback has been swift and strong. New York Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first woman and first Black woman to lead the legislative chamber, dismissed the analogy.
Till “was lynched. He was an African American teenager visiting relatives in Mississippi. I see no comparison,” Stewart-Cousins said.