Two years after two women came forward and accused him of sexual assault, Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is now running to become the state’s next governor. Not only does he maintain his innocence, he says he was treated like George Floyd and Emmett Till.
“It becomes a complete injustice — and one that mirrors a history of racial injustice — when as an African American, you have no opportunity to establish that these allegations are not true,” Fairfax said in an interview with NPR in March.
While Fairfax, a Democrat, connects the allegations that made national headlines in 2019 to a broader pattern of injustices against Black men, some of Fairfax’s detractors see his staying power as part of a troubling reversal of the #MeToo movement.
Attorney Debra Katz, who represents one of Fairfax’s accusers, points to other men her clients have accused of misconduct yet who remain in public service, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
In the early days of the movement, even when they denied wrongdoing, prominent men accused of misconduct often stepped back from public life, or acknowledged the potential for misunderstandings in sexual situations, and expressed regret for the pain their accusers say they caused. But that has changed, Katz said.
“The fact that Justin Fairfax is still here seems to be exactly what politicians are doing these days: act completely indignant, never apologize, cede no ground,” Katz said. “It seems to be working.”
Fairfax maintains he has nothing to apologize for.
Once a rising star in Virginia politics, the lieutenant governor faces a steep climb to the executive mansion. As of the end of the last campaign finance reports in March, his campaign had around $20,000 cash on hand, compared to $8.5 million for former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat who easily leads the polls.
Nor has Fairfax garnered the kind of national press coverage former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan have ahead of the June 8 Democratic primary. Both are aiming to become the first Black woman governor in U.S. history.
Still, Fairfax’s critics and boosters alike say he should not be underestimated.
“He still can pull it off,” said Tommy Bennett, a Democratic Party activist in Danville, a small southern Virginia city on the border with North Carolina.
Bennett is one of the roughly 8% of likely Democratic primary voters — and 13% of Black Democratic primary voters — who support Fairfax, based on a poll from Christopher Newport University last month. Bennett, who also serves as president of Danville’s NAACP, said public figures are often targets of fabricated scandals — especially if they’re Black.
“God help what they did to Bill Clinton,” Bennett said. But to him, it “depends on your color — whether you can get away with it or not.”
In an emailed statement, Fairfax’s spokesperson Lauren Burke, also accused NPR of being “a cheerleader for the #MeToo movement and not operating objectively.” She suggested Black men accused in the #MeToo era are “assumed automatically guilty” with no investigation or review of the facts.
Others say Fairfax is unfit for office. Adele McClure, Fairfax’s former policy director, calls Fairfax “vindictive” and says he used his office to bully and discredit his accusers.
“He can’t wait to get to that governor’s office, because not only does he feel entitled to it, but he knows that he can wield even greater power over those who spoke against him,” said McClure.
Fairfax brought the allegations up on his own in the first debate for Democrats in the race for governor in April, when he likened earlier calls for him to resign to the treatment of Floyd, who was killed by police in Minneapolis last year, and Till, who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955.
“No due process,” Fairfax said, “immediately assumed my guilt.”
The comment drew a sharp Twitter response from one of his accusers, Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor of politics at Scripps College in California. She tweeted that Virginia voters “deserve better” and she stood behind her decision to come forward.
Tyson first went public with her allegations in February 2019, claiming Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2004 in a Boston hotel room during the Democratic National Convention. Meredith Watson released a statement the same week accusing Fairfax of raping her while they were undergraduate students at Duke University in 2000.
The lieutenant governor has denied the allegations, sued CBS for reporting them and repeatedly called for investigations by law enforcement. He ordered and passed two polygraph tests in an attempt to show his innocence.
His legal team points to what they say are inconsistencies in his accusers’ stories. For example, they have claimed that details in Tyson’s story changed from when Fairfax first heard her account from reporters at The Washington Post. He also alleges that he and Tyson remained friendly after the encounter in Boston and that she even asked him to meet her mother, a point she has denied.
Fairfax and his attorneys have argued that his accusers’ credibility is undermined by their refusal to speak on the record after their interviews in 2019 with CBS and their refusal to respond to questions he has raised about their accounts.
They have also described the accusations as politically motivated. An attorney for Fairfax sent a letter to NPR alleging that the details surfaced at a “conspicuously political time,” years after the alleged events occurred. They have argued Tyson’s unsuccessful run for California State Assembly, after she came forward with the allegations, undermined her claim that she had no political motives.
Vanessa Tyson declined to comment for this story. Meredith Watson and her attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, also did not agree to an interview.
Katz, Tyson’s lawyer, said her client stands by her claims. She said Fairfax is attempting to intimidate his accusers and keep them quiet.
Whatever happened at Duke University in 2000 or the Boston hotel room in 2004, the allegations remain on the minds of those who are following the lieutenant governor’s run for higher office.
‘Catch her in a lie’
McClure, Fairfax’s former policy advisor, said he immediately won her over when he introduced himself at an event in 2013. Fairfax, then 34, was running to become the Democratic nominee for state attorney general. The former federal prosecutor appeared to be a thoughtful speaker and listener, McClure said.
“He looks you in the eye and makes you feel like he is absolutely listening to everything that you’re saying,” she said.
McClure signed up to volunteer for his campaign, which fell short of winning the nomination. They also struck a friendship that included family cookouts and nights out at bars. When Fairfax won the lieutenant governor’s post in the 2017 elections, McClure accepted the position as his policy director.
A year later in 2018, with the #MeToo movement in full swing, McClure said she first became aware of Vanessa Tyson’s sexual assault allegation when Fairfax and two other senior members of his office alerted her that the Washington Post was looking into details of Tyson’s claim.
The accusation was not yet public. McClure said Fairfax told her the encounter was consensual, and McClure said she believed him. The Post opted not to publish a story at the time, later explaining that “it could not corroborate Tyson’s account or find similar complaints of sexual misconduct.”
The allegation resurfaced after Feb. 1, 2019, a drizzly Friday afternoon, when a conservative blog published Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page. It featured a photo of a person in blackface alongside someone wearing a hooded KKK-style robe. Northam faced mounting calls to resign, and eyes quickly turned to Fairfax, his potential successor.
That weekend, a screenshot of a Facebook post made by Tyson insinuating Fairfax assaulted her began circulating on social media. In the office, McClure said an idea emerged to stage a coordinated attack against Tyson. The plan allegedly called for using Black women and anonymous social media accounts to question Tysons’s credibility. McClure said she thought the plan was rejected after she and Fairfax’s chief of staff, Larry Roberts, objected to it.
Neither Fairfax nor Burke, his spokesperson, responded to questions about McClure’s account of this alleged plan or the internal discussions surrounding it.
In an interview, Roberts said he did not recall any conversations about trying to attack Tyson online and said he never would have agreed to that plan had it taken place.
“I am sure there were strategic conversations about ‘Well, what do we do with the information that we have?'” said Roberts, who now serves as director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.
Roberts said they were wrestling with how to respond: “‘When will we be allowed to say things without it looking like we are trying to stifle a woman bringing forward a story?'”
According to Roberts, the team ultimately settled on pointing reporters toward information that they argued undermined Tyson’s credibility.
McClure put it more bluntly: “They were desperately, desperately, throughout the week trying to catch her in a lie to discredit her.”
McClure discussed the alleged tactics with Julia Billingsley, Fairfax’s scheduler and the most junior staffer in the office.
Billingsly said she felt like senior staffers were gauging her loyalty. “It felt less of, ‘How can I support these employees of mine, these members of our team?’ And very much more ‘Do they pose a threat to this office?’ ”
In the months following the public accusations, Fairfax did sometimes take his defense to Twitter. He has named Tyson and the second accuser, Meredith Watson, or their attorneys in more than a dozen Tweets, in one case tagging Tyson directly. He called the women “false accusers” and claimed Watson “fabricated the allegation.”
Others have seemed to follow Fairfax’s lead. Debra Katz, Tyson’s attorney, has also noted a handful of anonymous Twitter accounts that defend Fairfax or attack his critics.
“I don’t believe that these are real Twitter users,” Katz said. “I believe that this is a weaponized use of Twitter and social media. And I believe it’s part of coordinated campaigns. And it does have a chilling effect on women. And it’s very, very hard to police.”
NPR has not been able to verify who is behind the accounts.
Roberts said he worried about “everyone involved in the situation,” including McClure, Billingsley, Watson, Tyson, and Fairfax. He argued he had run a “very careful, thoughtful, ethical and attentive office” where “we empowered people of color and women.”
Roberts said, though, that McClure and Billingsley face a very different future than Fairfax.
“They get to go on and live their lives,” Roberts said. “He spends the rest of his life as an accused rapist.”
‘Lost the moral legitimacy’
By Friday of the week Tyson’s allegation came out, McClure and Billingsley, Fairfax’s scheduler, said they were exhausted. McClure said she was getting into bed when she saw a headline that “hit like a ton of bricks.” Meredith Watson had come forward to accuse Fairfax of raping her when they were undergraduate students at Duke University in 2000.
“With every new thing that came out, it was just chipping away, chipping away, chipping away at my trust in everything that I had been told,” McClure said.
Fairfax issued a statement that night denying the allegation and has continued to assert his innocence. Among other things, Fairfax has named another student who he said witnessed the encounter and would vouch that it was consensual. The other student has never come forward and did not respond to an interview request for this story. Watson has not publicly responded to Fairfax’s claim that there was a witness.
That night was when McClure and Billingsley said they knew they could not continue to work for the lieutenant governor. They began drafting a resignation letter but hoped someone would reach out to explain what was going on. They said Fairfax never did.
“The silence from Justin was deafening,” McClure said.
That same night, three consultants and two staffers for Fairfax’s political action committee also resigned. One of the staffers for Fairfax’s PAC, David Mills, is married to state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who is now a rival Democratic candidate in the race for governor.
Several months later, McClure spoke out against her old boss at a Take Back the Night event in Arlington, Va., and said he had “lost the moral legitimacy to hold public office.”
In communication with NPR, Fairfax’s lawyers alleged that McClure is biased and supports McClellan. McClure has not publicly endorsed anyone in the race.
‘There should be an investigation’
In an interview earlier this year with NPR, Fairfax suggested that his accusers should face consequences for what he calls false allegations.
“There should be accountability when you falsely accuse someone of these kinds of crimes,” he said.
In Sept., 2019, Fairfax filed a $400 million defamation lawsuit against CBS for two interviews the network aired in which anchor Gayle King asked Tyson and Watson about their allegations. A district court judge dismissed the case in 2020, without reaching the issue of truth or falsity. It is now before the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
Fairfax has also repeated calls for prosecutors — and the media — to more closely vet the allegations, arguing that he had not been granted the same due process as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“I think when people make allegations, there should be an investigation,” Fairfax said. “That’s what’s happening in New York. That’s what didn’t happen in Virginia.”
Because the accusers said the sexual assaults took place out of state and before Fairfax held public office, Virginia’s attorney general, Mark Herring, does not have the jurisdiction to investigate them in the way that New York Attorney General Letitia James is currently examining the in-state accusations against Cuomo.
Prosecutors in North Carolina and Massachusetts, the states where the encounters took place, would not comment when asked if their offices are investigating the accusations.
Both Tyson and Watson have called for bipartisan legislative hearings into the allegations, but Democratic lawmakers refused, arguing they lacked a formal process for doing so.
Katz, who represents Tyson, said she was “very disappointed” with that decision.
Fairfax’s defense appeared to be working, Katz said, insofar as it kept him on the campaign trail and debate stages. The broader #MeToo movement, she said, would be judged by its staying power.
“We had a moment that really galvanized the country, where we said, ‘This is enough, no more.’ ” Katz said. “And yet, we’re in a pandemic now, priorities have shifted and there’s less of an urgency, it seems.”
On the campaign trail
Fairfax had a busy spring in Virginia. He cast a tie-breaking vote legalizing the adult possession of small amounts of marijuana. He’s toured schools in Bristol and shot hoops in Hampton Roads, campaigning with a message he says centers on justice, inequality, and racism.
“The people have always been on our side,” Fairfax said in an interview in March.
Both Fairfax’s critics and backers describe the former prosecutor as an agile, charismatic speaker capable of moving deftly between audiences.
“He can go to the White House and he can go sit on the front porch in the projects,” said Tommy Bennett, the Democratic activist in Danville.
Monica Hutchinson, founder of the Henrico County Democratic Black Caucus, said she understands the history underlying Fairfax’s claims of unequal treatment.
“I am a cisgendered Black woman, married to a Black man, with three Black teenage sons,” Hutchinson said. “I completely understand that the justice system is not fair and is not blind.”
Still, Hutchinson said the allegations represented a “dark cloud” over Fairfax’s candidacy. She’s an enthusiastic backer of Jennifer McClellan, a Democratic candidate who has served in the state legislature over 15 years and is polling roughly evenly with Fairfax.
Virginia made history in 1989 by electing the first Black governor in the U.S., Democrat Douglas Wilder. Now, she said, it could do so again by placing a Black woman at the helm.
“You put the weight of the world on our shoulders every single election,” Hutchinson said. “We’re no longer going to stay in the shadows. We’re coming out.”
In an interview in March, Fairfax said he expects his political career to continue even if he loses the June 8 primary.
“I’ve always been focused on being engaged in public service,” he said. “That’s really where my heart’s always been, and that’s where it will continue to be.”