"The murder of George Floyd was horrific," Fairfax said in response to a debate question about police reform and racial equity in the criminal justice system. "But it recalls a history in Virginia and in our nation where African Americans — and particularly African American men — are presumed to be guilty."
Fairfax then said that he was "speaking truth to power" and noted that the four other candidates on the stage had called for him to resign. He singled out former governor Terry McAuliffe, who left office in 2018 and is now seeking the Democratic nomination for another term.
"I was falsely accused," Fairfax said. "He treated me like George Floyd. He treated me like Emmett Till. No due process. Immediately assumed my guilt. I have a son, and I have a daughter. I never want my daughter to be assaulted, and I never want my son to be falsely accused. And yet this is the real world we live in."
McAuliffe did not respond to the accusation during the debate, which was held at Virginia State University, a historically Black school in Petersburg. Afterward, a spokesman for McAuliffe's campaign declined to respond.
Fairfax has made such claims before, including comparing himself to lynching victims in remarks in the state Senate in 2019, shortly after the accusations were made. But the debate quotes lit up social media.
"Disgraceful," tweeted Adele McClure, executive director of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. "Justin has repeated his appalling comparison to Emmett Till since 2019. My heart goes out to survivors tonight as Justin Fairfax continues to repeat these traumatizing & harmful talking points that will replay again & again. This harm is not new & cannot continue."
"So hurtful to HIS people to compare himself to George Floyd," tweeted Virginia climate activist Harrison J. Wallace.
State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond), who is seeking to become the first Black woman elected governor, called Fairfax's comparison "shocking, unseemly and insensitive."
Fairfax said late Wednesday that he had seen some of the criticism but reiterated that he was talking about what he saw as the underlying issues of a lack of due process and a rush to judgment that contribute to a spectrum of racial injustice.
The remarks overshadowed the debate itself, which otherwise was highlighted by several candidates taking shots at McAuliffe.
Moments after McAuliffe praised McClellan for working with him on gun control during his term in office, McClellan accused him of fumbling a 2016 plan to put restrictions on people from other states who carry concealed weapons in Virginia.
Then former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy (Prince William) piled on, accusing McAuliffe of cutting a "backroom deal" that "made us all less safe."
McAuliffe countered that the gun issue was part of an agreement with Republicans to significantly strengthen domestic violence protections.
But with his broad name recognition and fundraising prowess, McAuliffe was a ripe target Tuesday among five candidates looking to grab early attention. Del. Lee J. Carter (Manassas) and Fairfax each threw barbs at the former governor, although all the candidates spent more time introducing themselves than attacking others.
The debate was the first of four sponsored by the state Democratic Party ahead of a June 8 primary election.
Standing at lecterns six feet apart, separated by clear screens so they could take off their masks, the candidates spoke beginning at 7 p.m. to an audience limited to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It was the first chance for many Virginians to take the measure of a historically diverse field of potential nominees.
At stake is the chance to try to succeed Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who like all Virginia governors is prohibited by the state constitution from seeking a second consecutive term.
All the candidates raced to differentiate themselves. Carroll Foy, a former public defender, spoke quickly and emphatically, repeatedly promising to “fight” for Virginians and invoking her working-class roots. “I don’t have to empathize because I understand,” she said, describing her family’s economic struggles.
McClellan emphasized her more than 15 years in the state legislature, noting that she has more experience in Richmond “than all other candidates on this stage combined.” Invoking her legislative achievements — including carrying a bill to create a Virginia Voting Rights Act and sponsoring legislation related to legalizing marijuana — McClellan wielded her résumé more than fiery rhetoric to make her case.
Carter, on the other hand, cast himself as an outsider: an electrician and part-time Lyft driver who struggled to get state unemployment payments during the pandemic, and the only veteran among the group.
“It’s no secret that Virginia is divided,” he said. “But that division is not between Democrats and Republicans. It’s not between urban and rural voters. It’s between the haves and have-nots.”
He pledged to put economic power into the hands of working people and to defy big corporations.
McAuliffe, repeating the phrases “lean in” and “big and bold,” tried both to invoke his record as governor and to draw attention to a website packed with plans for future policy. He emphasized his record restoring voting rights to thousands of felons as a high point of his career. He stressed gun control, promising to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, boasted of issuing more pardons than any other governor and condemned a “racist criminal justice system.”
Fairfax walked a fine line between all the other candidates, both pledging to fight for Virginians and touting his ability to work with everyone in his role as president of the Senate. He said that his proudest moment was casting a tiebreaking vote for Medicaid expansion in the Senate in 2018 and that he had been an early advocate of closing schools as the coronavirus pandemic began last year.
There were many areas where all five agreed: The need for everyone to get vaccinated, for instance. Efforts to legalize marijuana in an “equitable” way that would provide economic opportunities to minority communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. Expanding access to health care and support for small businesses.
With a one-hour format that allowed each candidate only a minute to answer each question, there wasn’t much time for straying from prepared positions. Fairfax complained that McAuliffe was routinely barreling past the time limit, and moderators made an effort to rein him in.
McAuliffe is attempting to become only the second Virginia governor to serve a second term in the past 200 years — after Mills Godwin, who served a four-year term as a Democrat starting in 1966 and as a Republican in 1974. Fairfax would be the second Black man to serve as Virginia governor, after L. Douglas Wilder.
McClellan and Carroll Foy are each seeking to become the first Black woman to govern any state. Carter, who identifies as a democratic socialist, will test just how far left this newly blue state is prepared to go.
One of them will take on a Republican nominee whom party members will choose at a May 8 convention. The field of seven GOP hopefuls consists of state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield); Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), a former House speaker; retired Army colonel Sergio de la Peña; former think-tank executive Peter Doran; former Roanoke sheriff Octavia Johnson; business executive Pete Snyder; and former Carlyle Group executive Glenn Youngkin.
The general election is Nov. 2. In addition to governor, Virginians will choose a lieutenant governor, an attorney general and all 100 members of the House of Delegates.
The next televised Democratic gubernatorial debate is set for May 6. Republicans have not scheduled a televised debate.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Sen. Jennifer McClellan’s role in marijuana legalization. She sponsored legislation related to marijuana legalization but not the Senate’s whole marijuana legalization package. It also misstated the tenure of Mills Godwin. He began terms as governor in 1966 and 1974, rather than being elected in those years.