Only the second African American elected statewide in Virginia, Fairfax hopes to follow in the footsteps of the first, L. Douglas Wilder (D), who a generation ago used the lieutenant governorship as a steppingstone to the Executive Mansion.
A former federal prosecutor, Fairfax, 41, has been lieutenant governor since January 2018. In that role, his first elective office, he presides over a narrowly divided state Senate and has the power to break most tie votes. The lieutenant governor’s other duty is to take over if the governor dies or leaves office before his term expires.
Fairfax seemed poised to step in for Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in early 2019, when the governor appeared on the verge of resigning over a racist photo that surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook. Amid the uproar, two women accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting them in separate incidents in the early 2000s. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence and called the allegations a smear campaign intended to drive him from office.
Neither man resigned, and the scandals have largely faded. But Republicans and Fairfax’s Democratic rivals are likely to bring the allegations up as he runs for governor, and on Thursday, an attorney representing one of the women issued a statement.
“Lieutenant Governor Fairfax apparently believes that the citizens of the Commonwealth have forgotten about the serious and credible allegations of sexual assault made against him,” Debra S. Katz, an attorney for one of his accusers, said in an email. Katz renewed calls for the state legislature to hold a public hearing on the women’s claims. Fairfax himself has repeatedly urged police to investigate.
Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst, said Fairfax will have to convince voters that he was denied due process. “He has to somehow convince them that they sort of jumped to a conclusion before the evidence was in,” Holsworth said. “Prior to these allegations, this was a guy who was seen as an extraordinary political talent, very bright, engaging, quick on his feet, had a good grasp on a range of issues. . . . I think it’s an uphill climb for him.”
Fairfax joins a Democratic primary field that already includes state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond) and Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (Prince William). Former governor Terry McAuliffe, who left office in January 2018, has been hinting for months that he will join the race and has already raised almost $1.7 million for a potential comeback bid.
Northam cannot seek reelection under the state constitution, which prohibits governors from serving back-to-back terms.
Fairfax plans an appearance Saturday at the Historic Fairfax County Courthouse, whose files contain the manumission document that freed his great-great-great grandfather, Simon Fairfax, from bondage in 1798. He will have another event Sunday afternoon at Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, where the first enslaved Africans landed in North America 401 years ago.
The Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, who has claimed without evidence to be a fourth great-nephew of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, will endorse Fairfax at Fort Monroe. Lee, who has called for the removal of monuments to the general, appeared in the state Senate in January 2019 to show support for Fairfax, who days earlier had sat out a Republican senator’s tribute to the general.
Fairfax and Lee also teamed up in June with an appearance at the state’s towering equestrian statue of the general on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Northam had announced that day that he would remove the statue, which had become a focal point for protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May.
Removal has since been stalled by a court fight.
Fairfax also announced an endorsement from a Scottish nobleman, Nicholas Fairfax, the 14th Lord Fairfax, whose distant forebear, Thomas Fairfax, the ninth Lord Fairfax, freed Simon Fairfax.
The lieutenant governor first met Lord Fairfax in September 2018, when the nobleman visited his namesake county for the Lord Fairfax Charity Ride, a motorcycle excursion to benefit local charities. They met again last summer, when the lieutenant governor took a trip to Britain with his wife and two young children.
“It goes without saying that our family are not at all proud of the fact that our forebears in Virginia were involved in the institution of slavery,” Nicholas Fairfax says in a recorded endorsement. “I am, however, very proud indeed to become connected with Justin and to have seen for myself his exceptional qualities, talents and leadership. Our family’s glad and honored to have got[cq] to know Justin and his extended family, and are proud and happy to call them our Virginia cousins.”