Justin Fairfax, second in line for governor of Virginia, faces sexual assault allegation

Here’s what we know.

Justin Fairfax could become the next governor of Virginia. But now he is facing an allegation of sexual assault.

Gov. Ralph Northam has been facing pressure to resign over a racist photo that recently surfaced from his medical school yearbook page from 1984. Fairfax, the state’s lieutenant governor and fellow Democrat, would be next in line if Northam does resign.

The allegation against Fairfax is this: Patrick Howley of the conservative website Big League Politics reported on Sunday that Vanessa Tyson, a professor of politics at Scripps College, had said she was sexually assaulted in 2004 by a campaign staffer who was now up for a “VERY BIG promotion” in Democratic politics. Howley, who was also the first to obtain the Northam yearbook photo, noted that Fairfax was a campaign staffer for presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 and that he was now poised to become governor of Virginia. Tyson has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.

Fairfax issued a statement early Monday morning saying that he had “never assaulted anyone — ever — in any way, shape or form.” The statement also said that “the person reported to be making this false allegation” had approached the Washington Post around the time of Fairfax’s inauguration, but that the Post had declined to publish a story.

A woman did approach the Washington Post about a year ago, the newspaper reported Monday, saying that Fairfax had sexually assaulted her in 2004 during the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The Post could not corroborate either her or Fairfax’s description of the encounter, according to the newspaper. The Post did not identify the woman.

The allegation comes at a time of chaos in Virginia, as Northam mulls whether to resign after the racist photo surfaced and a disastrous press conference in which he attempted to address it. The story also serves as a reminder that accusations of sexual assault are not confined to one political party.

Liberals have long feared that conservatives would make use of the #MeToo movement to attack Democratic politicians, and the allegations against Fairfax did come to light through conservative media. What happens now will be a test of how Democrats handle such allegations when they could be politically inconvenient for the party.

A woman says Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2004

Fairfax, 39, is the second black person ever to win statewide elected office in Virginia. Elected in 2017, he gained greater national attention over the weekend as scandal engulfed Northam. Virginia Democrats and others praised him as a charismatic and effective politician, and politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had called for him to become governor.

Then the allegation surfaced.

“Imagine you were sexually assaulted during the DNC convention in Boston in 2004 by a campaign staffer,” reads what Big League Politics reports is a private post online by Tyson. “You spend the next 13 years trying to forget it ever happened. Until one day you find out he’s the Democratic candidate for statewide office in a state 3,000 miles away, and he wins that election in November 2017. Then by strange, horrible luck, it seems increasingly likely that he’ll get a VERY BIG promotion.”

According to Howley of Big League Politics, the post was shared by Adria Scharf, the executive director of the Richmond Peace Education Center in Virginia. Scharf has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.

Many details in the post match Fairfax’s biography. He was a staffer for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. Tyson works in California, a state thousands of miles away from Virginia. Fairfax and Northam were elected in 2017. And, of course, Fairfax could get a promotion if Northam decided to resign.

In his statement, Fairfax says that “the person reported to be making this false allegation” approached the Post around the time of Fairfax’s inauguration in 2018. “The Post carefully investigated the claim for several months,” the statement says. “After being presented with facts consistent with the Lt. Governor’s denial of the allegation, the absence of any evidence corroborating the allegation, and significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegation, the Post made the considered decision not to publish the story.”

Meanwhile, Theresa Vargas of the Washington Post reported on Monday about the newspaper’s investigation into the 2004 incident:

The woman described a sexual encounter that began with consensual kissing and ended with a forced act that left her crying and shaken. She said Fairfax guided her to the bed, where they continued kissing, and then at one point she realized she could not move her neck. She said Fairfax used his strength to force her to perform oral sex.

The Washington Post, in phone calls to people who knew Fairfax from college, law school and through political circles, found no similar complaints of sexual misconduct against him. Without that, or the ability to corroborate the woman’s account — in part because she had not told anyone what happened — The Washington Post did not run a story.”

According to Vargas, the Post did not find “significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegations,” as Fairfax’s statement claimed.

Fairfax’s office released a follow-up statement Monday afternoon in response to the Post article. “The Washington Post, acknowledging it had no corroboration, just smeared an elected official,” the statement said. “We reiterate that this allegation is false.”

“We ask further,” the statement continued, “what other major elected official in the Commonwealth of Virginia would be smeared with sexual allegations that were presented without corroboration?”

The allegation comes on the heels of Northam’s yearbook scandal

The allegation comes at a time of turmoil for Virginia Democrats. Last week, Northam inspired outrage from conservatives with confusing comments about a Virginia abortion bill. Appearing to describe what would happen if a child was born after a failed abortion, he said “the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother,” which some interpreted as a reference to infanticide.

Then, on Friday, the Virginia-Pilot published a photograph from Northam’s medical school yearbook page, depicting a man in blackface and a man in a Ku Klux Klan costume. The photo had been circulating in right-wing media prior to the Virginia-Pilot’s publication, and Howley of Big League Politics may have been the first to publish it.

In the wake of the photo’s publication — and especially after a bizarre press conference in which Northam denied posing for the photo but said he had dressed up in blackface on a different occasion — many have called for the governor to resign and allow Fairfax to take his place.

On Sunday, Fairfax released a statement in which he did not explicitly call for Northam to resign, but said “we need leaders with the ability to unite us and help us rise to the better angels of our nature.”

The allegation against Fairfax, however, complicates matters. According to the Washington Post, Northam was meeting with his cabinet and other officials on Monday to decide whether he should resign.

When Northam admitted to wearing blackface, Democrats had an appealing alternative in Fairfax. Now the party will be forced to choose between a man who put a racist image on his medical school yearbook page and a man accused of sexual assault — or an as-yet-undetermined third option. (Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, also a Democrat, is next in line after Northam and Fairfax.)

Historically, Democrats have responded far more aggressively to allegations of sexual misconduct than Republicans have. But this situation is new, and it is unclear how the party will respond. Whatever happens, however, will set a standard for how Democrats confront sexual misconduct accusations even when they come from an adversarial source — and when they concern a rising star who looked like he could help lead his party out of a crisis.