Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the No. 2 Virginia Democrat accused by two women of sexual assault, on Sunday compared himself to victims of “terror lynchings,” pitting racial progress against the call of the #MeToo movement to “believe women."
In an extemporaneous, nearly six-minute speech on the final day of the legislative session, Fairfax, 40, portrayed himself as a modern-day target of vigilante justice that once ruled the Jim Crow South — part of a history for which Virginia is still making amends.
“I’ve heard much about anti-lynching on the floor of this very Senate, where people were not given any due process whatsoever, and we rue that,” Fairfax said, referring to a measure approved this month by the General Assembly that expressed “profound regret" for the record of lynchings in the state. “And we talk about hundreds, at least 100 terror lynchings that have happened in the Commonwealth of Virginia under those very same auspices. And yet we stand here in a rush to judgment with nothing but accusations and no facts, and we decide that we are willing to do the same thing."
The comment drew condemnation from Republican leaders and a new vow from an attorney for one of Fairfax’s accusers, Vanessa Tyson, that she was prepared to testify under the right circumstances. The Republican-controlled House of Delegates is planning public hearings, though the two accusers are split on whether to move ahead without buy-in from Democrats.
“That is the worst, most disgusting type of rhetoric he could have invoked,” said Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the House majority leader, according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Fairfax’s impassioned self-defense exposed the painful position in which Democrats have found themselves as a result of the cluster of controversies plaguing Virginia, which have prompted calls for the resignation of Fairfax, considered a rising star in the party, as well as of Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, both of whom wore blackface as part of costumes decades ago.
Fairfax’s words seemed to echo the explosive charge leveled in 1991 by Clarence Thomas, then a nominee to the United States Supreme Court, that the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee was conducting a “high-tech lynching” under the guise of investigating Anita Hill’s claims that he had sexually harassed her.
The hearing, Thomas said, was a “circus” and a “national disgrace.” Its message to black Americans, he told the committee, was that, “unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.”
Both of Fairfax’s accusers, like Hill, are black.
But Lauren Burke, a spokeswoman for Fairfax, maintained that the similarity was “not all that close” between Thomas’s complaint and Fairfax’s speech. She told The Washington Post that the lieutenant governor’s comments were unscripted and unrehearsed, and that they “stand on their own.”
Beyond the word "lynching,” Burke maintained, the remarks bore little resemblance to other complaints of racial bias used to discredit accounts of sexual assault. After the conviction of Bill Cosby last year, the wife of the comedian argued that “unproven accusations evolved into lynch mobs.” The management team for R. Kelly, the R&B singer who is now awaiting trial for aggravated sexual abuse, decried a boycott of his music launched last year as an “attempted public lynching.”
Burke argued that the lieutenant governor’s aim was to emphasize the importance of due process. “There has been no investigation whatsoever,” she said.
Fairfax faces two allegations of sexual assault, both of which he denies, insisting that the encounters were consensual. Tyson, an associate professor of politics at Scripps College, came forward at the beginning of the month to claim that he had forced her to perform oral sex in his hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. A second accuser, Meredith Watson, said later the same week that he had raped her in 2000, when they were students at Duke University. She is prepared to testify, she affirmed in a Washington Post column last week, proclaiming, “I am not ashamed.” A lawyer reaffirmed that commitment Friday.
Whereas Thomas spoke before a panel of lawmakers deciding whether to promote him to the nation’s top court, Fairfax on Sunday addressed members of the state Senate, a body over which he presides as president.
When Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) thanked him for his professionalism despite “the stress that you have been under throughout these weeks," Fairfax took the opportunity to reflect on the scandal in which he has been engulfed since the blackface revelations appeared to put him in striking distance of the governor’s mansion, which has only ever been held by one black politician.
“This was not something I planned to talk about,” Fairfax said, gazing out at the chamber, his hands in his pockets.
He said the state stood at a crossroads, and that his fate is also Virginia’s.
“I’m happy to be just one representative example of whether or not we’re going to rise to the better angels of our nature or go back down a very dark political road, where 50 years ago, had fingers been pointed at me in the exact same way, it’d be a very different outcome,” he said, implying that he would have been subject to extrajudicial violence. “I would not be standing up here on the dais. A very different outcome would have happened, with no facts, no due process, no evidence, no nothing.”
He cast the controversy as a dispute over the guarantee of due process contained in the 14th Amendment, “ironically, in this case, a post-Civil War amendment,” as Fairfax observed, which “meant to give, finally, rights and due process to people who had been denied it for their entire existence on this soil.”
Allowing “political lynchings without any due process” would represent a denial of that guarantee, he argued, and a betrayal of the promise made by the Reconstruction amendment to black Americans. The NAACP has documented how accusations of rape were a central rationale for lynchings between 1882 and 1968.
He repeatedly proclaimed his faith in God and his belief that the truth was on his side, issuing this stern warning to his detractors: “Should anyone decide that they desire to see a downfall of me or of the Constitution or of victims or of anyone else, I would just ask that you look and reflect and think about who you are, think about who we are, and think about who we want to be."
Silence prevailed in the chamber as Fairfax concluded his remarks, which later drew condemnation from Republicans. Gilbert, the Republican leader in the House of Delegates, said he intended to ensure that Fairfax had due process.
Republicans said Friday they planned to invite Fairfax’s accusers to testify publicly, over Democratic objections that the event would devolve into a “political, partisan circus.” Their concern was shared by Tyson, whose lawyers have asked lawmakers to find a bipartisan solution. Fairfax has called on law enforcement to investigate, and his spokeswoman said he wasn’t interested in “political theater.”
Debra Katz, a partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks who is representing Tyson, responded to Fairfax’s remarks by reiterating her client’s willingness to testify publicly but insisting on “an appropriate process.” The Washington attorney, who has helped air misconduct claims against politicians of both parties, represented Christine Blasey Ford, the California research psychologist, as she went public last fall with accusations that Brett M. Kavanaugh, then a nominee to the Supreme Court, had assaulted her when they were in high school in the Washington suburbs.
The AP reported that black lawmakers did not take issue with Fairfax’s remarks Sunday. In the view of Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), “He said what he needed to say." Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Charles City), chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said his constituents have voiced similar concerns about the lieutenant governor receiving unfair treatment on account of his race.
There is a gulf in public opinion about what should happen to Fairfax. A Quinnipiac poll released last week found that voters were evenly divided — 36 percent to 36 percent with 28 percent having no opinion — about whether the lieutenant governor should resign.
Polling has also revealed that 4 in 10 white voters believe Fairfax should leave office, while a quarter of African Americans believe the same. Men were more likely than women to say Fairfax should resign.
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