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Justin Fairfax’s Next Act

Justin Fairfax speaks into microphone at Democratic Party fundraiser
Justin Fairfax speaks at the Blue Commonwealth Gala on Saturday (Craig Carper/VPM News)

The 1,500 or so guests at Virginia Democrats' largest fundraiser were digging into their salads when Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax strode onstage at Main Street Station on Saturday.

Despite tepid applause and a boycott from a couple dozen women, it was a comeback of sorts for Fairfax. A year ago, many politicians in the room had called for his resignation after two women came forward with accusations of sexual assault. Now he was back at what he saw as his rightful place at the podium.

“We’ve risen like the phoenix from the ashes because we've exposed this for what it is,” Fairfax said in an interview a week before the gala. “Do they think that they're going to tear me down with nonsense? Absolutely not.”

Fairfax is once again in the spotlight ahead of a planned gubernatorial run in 2021.

Over the past month, he’s given remarks at an event held by the LGBTQ group Equality Virginia, back-slapped his “dear friend” Gov. Ralph Northam after a brief speech at an Executive Mansion Black History Month event , and given the keynote address at the annual Martin Luther King Memorial service in Washington DC.

These are alarming developments for activists like Alexsis Rodgers, state director of the domestic worker's advocacy group Care In Action. Rodgers, who walked out of Fairfax’s speech, is also involved in a number of local Democratic groups but emphasized she wasn’t speaking on their behalf.

She said Fairfax has been given a dangerous platform to attack women who've shared traumatic personal stories. 

“There seems to be no awareness that the way that he's carrying himself could actually still be harming people to this day and is harming people to this day,” she said.

‘Political Smear Campaign’

Over the past year, Fairfax has been mobbed by TV cameras, lost his prestigious law job, sued CBS for $400 million for defamation, and announced his intention to run for governor in 2021.

Through it all, Fairfax has insisted on the falsity of the allegations against him and said the media is ignoring evidence that would clear his name.

“No one wants to report somebody being exonerated,” he said. “People love to mindlessly rehash allegations.”

Justin Fairfax in front of TV cameras
Justin Fairfax in a TV interview during a special legislative session on gun violence in July 2019. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In his September lawsuit against CBS, Fairfax’s attorneys disclosed an alleged eyewitness of Fairfax’s 2000 encounter with Meredith Watson at Duke University. Fairfax refused to name the person or say if they were involved in the encounter. He said Watson’s silence about the alleged eyewitness helps proves her involvement in a “political smear campaign.”

Last week, a federal judge threw out the CBS defamation case. Fairfax is planning to appeal.

Watson “is caught in a massive lie,” he said. “And you’re scared to report it.”

Karen Kessler, a spokesperson for Watson’s attorney, declined to comment, saying they are “still waiting for the opportunity to appear before the VA legislature and have this discussion in an open forum.”

Vanessa Tyson, who alleged she was assaulted in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, is now running for California statehouse -- proof, Fairfax says, that she is “getting the publicity that she wanted from day one.” Fairfax has called into question Tyson's timeline of their encounter, saying that the day Tyson said they first met -- July 26, 2004 --- he was serving on the staff of Sen. John Edwards; news clippings show Edwards was still in South Carolina that day.

Tyson’s lawyer, Debra Katz, said that “he may be wrong about the date or [Tyson] may be wrong about the date.”

“But the bottom line is, she stands by her assertion that she has a very clear recollection of what happened in the hotel room,” Katz said, adding she was proud of her client for giving “voice to experiences that many women have had.”

Fairfax's filings in the CBS lawsuit maintained that both women showed "unambiguous consent" during the encounters. He declined to give details on what that meant in the interview, saying he didn't want to "denigrate these women by talking about something 20 and 15 years ago" unless called upon in court. 

Fairfax said the allegations are the “quintessential case” that the #MeToo movement has gone too far.

“You’re in this blind hashtag world where I can go on Twitter and hashtag something and then cancel culture is here,” Fairfax said, referring to the practice where high-profile people are boycotted or ostracized for behavior deemed questionable.

“People are canceling cancel culture because it's outrageous,” Fairfax said.

Silencing Effect

Alexsis Rodgers finds the women’s claims credible and said Fairfax’s verbal attacks on his accusers have had a ripple effect.

“If you are a survivor who works at a political organization, you might feel differently about speaking up, even if you know your truth,” Rodgers said.

About three out of four sexual assaults go unreported to police, according to federal data compiled by the anti-sexual violence group RAINN.  The phenomenon spawned its own hashtag, #WhyIDidntReport, with tens of thousands of tweets. 

Alexsis Rodgers in front of Richmond mural
Activist Alexsis Rodgers said the re-acceptance of Fairfax into Democratic circles sends the wrong message to survivors of sexual assault. "A lot of folks are just suffering in silence and not feeling safe speaking out because they've tried and they haven't been heard," she said. (Yasmine Jumaa/VPM News)

Rodgers said that Fairfax’s increasingly speaking busy schedule suggests liberals aren’t rallying around Tyson and Watson the way they did with Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

“Some people would say...these are black women coming forward and sharing their stories and they're not being heard,” she said. “Others would say that the liberal base can't necessarily see the wrongdoing in their own party. I don't know what it is. But I would say that it's very clear that these women are being treated differently.”

The discussion of Fairfax comes at an otherwise celebratory moment for Democrats, who drew national attention last month for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. Fairfax handed over the dais to Senate President pro tempore Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) to mark the day.

Lisa Sales, chair of the Fairfax County Commission for Women, connected her boycott of Fairfax's speech at the gala to the ERA. 

“If folks stayed in the room, and they didn't stand up for this, then they stand for nothing,” she said. “Almost every one of us who've been involved in the ERA campaign has a story to tell about the violence or sexual discrimination that they've experienced.”

Hearings

Lawyers for Tyson and Watson continue to say they prefer bipartisan legislative hearings over a criminal investigation.

But there are no signs that the newly-Democratic legislature will act; a push by House Republicans to hold hearings last year ran into a roadblock when Democrats refused to participate, saying the case was better left to the court system. And a brief push by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) to hold impeach hearings was quickly withdrawn after pushback from other lawmakers.

“I tried last year and it went nowhere,” Hope said, declining further comment.

Several other Democrats voiced private misgivings about Fairfax’s role in the party but declined to go on record; others, like Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), said that their focus was on getting legislation passed.

Justin Fairfax poses on dais with Louise Lucas
Justing Fairfax temporarily hands over control over the state Senate to Sen. Louise Lucas during the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. (Craig Carper/VPM News).

The lieutenant governor’s role in the Senate is mostly ceremonials and procedural. But Fairfax has already broken tie votes, including a landmark bill from McClellan that would undo some restrictions on abortions. Rodgers said that lawmakers and advocates may be wary of speaking up in case their bill is next. The situation may be especially delicate for female lawmakers, Rodgers said.

Still, Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said that the scandals of last year, including Gov. Northam’s attempts to explain a racist photo in his yearbook page, “is kind of in everybody's rearview mirror.”

He questioned whether the legislature was the right venue to examine allegations over a decade old.

“If there's conflict that occurs during session, or during somebody's term of elected office, I think it's much more plausible,” he said.

Others have spoken out in Fairfax’s defense. Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Newport News) tweeted that a top donors’ withdrawal from the gala “smacks of racism.” Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian) said in an interview she approved of Fairfax’s handling of the Senate. And Sen. Joe Morrissey, who pled guilty to having sex with his 17 year-old receptionist in 2014, said he saw parallels between their cases.

“Justin has shown with absolute certitude he's not going to quit,” Morrissey said. “I think he is a viable candidate for statewide office.”

Rodgers, on the other hand, sees the ballot box as a viable way to rebuke Fairfax. The lieutenant governor is expected to formally announce his run for governor in the coming months.