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Justin Fairfax Speech at Democratic Gala Sparks Backlash From Top Donor

Justin Fairfax speaking at Capitol Square
Justin Fairfax speaks at a rally in January 2019 (Photo: Louise Ricks/VPM News)

Virginia’s largest Democratic political donor withdrew plans to contribute to a key Democratic fundraiser on Friday, citing a planned speech by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.

In a statement, Clean Virginia founder and board chair Michael Bills said Fairfax’s address at the biannual Blue Commonwealth Gala was inappropriate given accusations of sexual assault levied against the lieutenant governor last year. 

“I am gravely concerned that granting Fairfax the honor of speaking at the Gala sends an exculpatory message I do not believe is merited and in which Clean Virginia will have no part,” Bills said.

Bills gave over $1.7 million to Democrats and left-leaning causes in 2019 alone, making him the top donor to Democrats in last year’s legislative elections, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Last February, two women, Meredith Watson and Vanessa Tyson, accused Fairfax of two separate incidents of sexual assault -- Watson at Duke in 2000, and Tyson at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004.

Fairfax has vigorously denied the allegations.

Lauren Burke, a spokesperson for Fairfax, confirmed that he had been allotted roughly three minutes of speaking time at the fundraiser.

In an interview last week with VPM News, Fairfax cast his speech at the gala as a sign the party has re-embraced him after near-unanimous calls for him to resign last year.

“A year ago, they wouldn't accept my check to buy a table with the gala,” Fairfax said, referring to the last Blue Commonwealth Gala in June. “And this year I'm speaking. So I think they have seen it differently. Again, the truth is a powerful thing.”

A tentative lineup for the gala distributed to lawmakers and seen by VPM did not include Fairfax as a speaker, though he told VPM News last week he would be speaking.

“We took this decision seriously and spoke with party leaders at every level to reach a decision,” DPVA chair Susan Swecker said in a statement. 

Cached snapshots of the gala's website show Clean Virginia's name was removed at some point either Tuesday or Wednesday. The group was previously listed under the "James River Sponsors" level at the $15,000 level, but had not yet paid for its ticket.