Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle) rose on the House floor Friday and said that the body had “a duty to investigate” and that both women and Fairfax would be asked to testify at a date to be determined.
One of the women immediately accepted the invitation. The other reiterated her desire to testify but said she wanted the format to be bipartisan.
That seemed highly unlikely Friday. “They just went nuclear,” Del. Mark L. Keam (D-Fairfax) said after Bell made his announcement.
Fairfax has emphatically denied the allegations, saying the encounters were consensual. Through a spokeswoman, he called the GOP plans “political theater.” The 39-year-old former federal prosecutor had been widely expected to run for governor in 2021 before the allegations surfaced.
“House Republicans want to pursue this historically unprecedented course of action because the accused is a popularly elected Democrat,” Lauren Burke, a spokeswoman for Fairfax, said in a statement. “The path to finding truth and justice should be based on due process and the work of law enforcement professionals. The Lt. Governor is confident that the truth will exonerate him.”
The move by Republicans carries risks for both parties in an election year, when all 140 seats in the state legislature are on the ballot.
House Republicans, who blocked a vote on the federal Equal Rights Amendment on Thursday, could mitigate any damage that did among female voters by supporting the women who have accused Fairfax. That would also put Democrats, of the party that has embraced the “Believe Women” mantra in the #MeToo era, in an uncomfortable position.
But if the hearing resembles a partisan attack on Fairfax, the second African American elected to statewide office in Virginia, it could motivate black voters to turn out heavily for Democrats, erasing fallout from recent revelations that the other two Democratic top officeholders, Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, wore blackface as part of costumes decades ago.
Del. Lashrecse D. Aird (D-Petersburg) pushed back on behalf of Democrats and implored lawmakers to consider whether a public hearing before a legislative committee was the best way forward.
“Ask yourself, ‘What does justice look like?’ ” she said. “What does justice look like for someone who has come forward with allegations of sexual assault? What does justice look like for someone accused of sexual assault? And whether this body can really deliver the justice that is truly sought.”
If Fairfax is charged with a crime by law enforcement and found guilty, Aird said, “the women, the black women on this side of the aisle, will be the first people to draft articles of impeachment.”
But Del. Lee J. Carter (D-Manassas) disagreed with Aird.
“So much of the conversation regarding sexual assault is not focused where it should be — on the wishes of those who have survived it,” he said. “Survivors of sexual assault are and should be entitled to choose whichever legal venue they desire to seek justice. Mr. Speaker, when I was raped, I did not report to law enforcement because I did not believe that that was a way through which I would achieve justice.”
Cox originally proposed a 10-person investigative committee — with five Republicans, five Democrats and limited subpoena power — to look into claims by Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson that Fairfax sexually assaulted them years ago.
Both Tyson and Watson have asked the General Assembly for the opportunity to publicly testify.
Nancy Erika Smith, an attorney for Watson, said Friday that Watson looked forward to testifying before the committee, believed it would be televised, and was under the impression that she would be able to present witnesses.
But Tyson’s lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, were more nuanced, saying Tyson is “prepared to testify” but raising concerns that the forum did not appear to have bipartisan backing.
“Dr. Tyson has also made it clear that she does not want to be embroiled in a highly charged political environment,” the lawyers wrote. “It is the duty of the leaders on both sides of the aisle in Virginia to establish a bi-partisan path forward. . . . If the Legislature truly believes that all sides deserve to be heard and taken seriously, its leaders will come together and determine an appropriate process.”
On the House floor, Bell said the allegations were “obviously — extraordinarily — extremely serious. We tried to work diligently with our colleagues across the aisle to create a bipartisan way to investigate. Proposed a special subcommittee that would have been five-five — five Republicans, five Democrats — to hear testimony, issue subpoenas, conduct the investigation. That was declined.”
On Thursday, House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) confirmed that she and other Democratic leaders had met with Cox but said they were concerned that an investigative panel could impede possible criminal investigations.
“We don’t want this to be a political, partisan circus,” Filler-Corn said in a briefing with reporters Friday morning, before Bell’s announcement.
She also said she was wary of agreeing to the formation of the committee without details in writing. “We asked for the specifics: ‘What are you talking about? What would this look like? How would this be done?’ ”
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said he could not comment because if the House hearing turned out to be a precursor to impeachment proceedings, the Senate would serve as the jury.
“I’m not going to opine one way or the other because we would be sitting as a jury — if the Senate made the determination to participate,” he said.
Under the state constitution, articles of impeachment are initiated in the House of Delegates and then decided in the Senate.
Cox had initially proposed a special subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee, which could hear testimony from witnesses. He said the findings could form the basis for impeachment, but he cautioned against calling the panel an “impeachment committee” because that might not be the outcome.
Tyson has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Watson says Fairfax assaulted her in 2000, while they were students at Duke University.
Fairfax has called the allegations a smear campaign against him. Both women went public with their accusations at a moment when Fairfax appeared to be on the cusp of ascending to the governorship.
At the beginning of this month, Democrats and Republicans alike were calling on Northam to step down after revelations of a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page and his admission that he darkened his cheeks with shoe polish that year while dressed as Michael Jackson for a dance contest.
Fairfax would have become governor if Northam had resigned, an option the governor initially considered but then dismissed.
Lawmakers of both parties were more restrained when Tyson stepped forward with her accusation, with most saying the lieutenant governor deserved due process.
They also held their fire when another scandal unfolded: Herring, who had called on Northam to resign, admitted that he had dressed in blackface as a college student.
But after Watson stepped forward with the second accusation, Democratic leaders quickly called for Fairfax to resign. He has said repeatedly that he will not step down and wants the FBI or others to investigate the accusations. The FBI has no jurisdiction over either case, since the allegations do not include a federal crime.
In polls conducted since the scandals broke, voters have been split over whether Fairfax should resign.
Jenna Portnoy and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.