The top three elected Democrats in the state of Virginia have been mired in controversy for the last week. On Friday, Feb. 1, a medical school yearbook pictures from 1984 surfaced showing two people in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan uniform on Gov. Ralph Northam’s page, as well as showing a racist nickname in his class photo. Democrats both nationally and locally have called for his resignation, including Attorney General Mark Herring. A mere four days after calling for Northam’s resignation, Herring admitted he’d also worn blackface at a party in 1980. Sandwiched between these scandals, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, a rising star in the Democratic Party poised to take over as governor should Northam step down, was hit with allegations of sexual assault and rape.
Dr. Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor at Scripps College in California, came forward on Wednesday, February 6 to publicly allege that during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston she entered a hotel room with Fairfax, who at the time worked on the John Kerry campaign. She claims that while she initially consented to kissing and touching between her and Fairfax, things changed when she alleges the politician forced her to perform oral sex on him, holding down her head, making it difficult for her to move. She states that she was visibly upset and after the encounter never interacted with Fairfax again.
After Tyson went public with her allegations, a second woman came forward. Meredith Watson, via an attorney’s statement, claims Fairfax raped her in 2000 when they both were students at Duke University, saying the “attack was premeditated and aggressive.” In the statement calling on the Lt. Governor to resign, Watson says she was upset to learn of Tyson’s allegations against Fairfax and that the situation sounded similar to her own. She also claims to “have statements from former classmates corroborating” that she told friends about the attack immediately after the alleged rape.
In several statements Fairfax has maintained that the sexual encounters with Tyson and Watson were consensual.
The Root spoke on the phone with Fairfax about the allegations, his understanding of consent, how he is able to perform his duties and what an investigation into these charges may look like.
The Root: As lieutenant governor you are still responsible for presiding over the Virginia Senate every day while facing your allegations. What has it been like trying to do your job this week?
Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax: I’ve been very relaxed, being able to focus on my official duties has actually helped. I enjoy that work tremendously, presiding over the senators and the staff interactions and working with constituents. I welcome the opportunity to focus on those issues that the people of Virginia elected us to work on.
TR: Have you noticed any changes in how your colleagues treat you or work with you? [Throughout the week several Virginia Democratic entities, including the Legislative Black Caucus, have asked that Lt. Governor Fairfax resign, as well was former Va. Governor Terry McAuliffe and Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Tim Kaine.] Are you still able to do your job effectively with several allegations against you?
JF: I’ve not noticed any [differences], with senators and others in Capitol Square. I’ve had a high comfort level with the work, with the facts at hand and I’m firm and comfortable with the truth. I’ve been able to do the job as well as ever.
TR: Now lieutenant governor, I’m going to ask you a question that is foremost in the minds of many people since the initial allegations against you, and a question that many organizations across the nation have been the most concerned with. How do you know that you had consent from Dr. Vanessa Tyson?
JF: I’m very confident that the entire encounter was consensual. We’re looking forward to the independent investigation to explore the facts, and assess various factors involved. Those reviews will support what I know is the truth. That I never sexually assaulted Dr. Tyson.
TR: I ask the same question about the second allegation. How did you know you had consent from Meredith Watson?
JF: I’m likewise very confident in the truth that the entire encounter with Ms. Watson was consensual. Neither that night nor other times I saw her on campus did she give me the impression that it was anything but consensual. We are fully co-operating with investigators who are assessing the situations and we’re sure that they will once again confirm the truth, that I never raped Ms. Watson.
TR: You’ve called for an investigation into the allegations against you. What exactly does that look like? Would it be a special investigator hired by the Virginia Legislature? Would it be up to local law enforcement in Massachusetts and North Carolina? Or would it be up to the FBI?
JF: What I will say, is we have called for an impartial investigation by the FBI because we want the facts to be assessed and be known. We are open to fully co-operating with any investigation and the results of those investigations.
TR: Let’s do some science fiction. It’s six months from now, you’re still lieutenant governor of Virginia, you’re out there campaigning for Democrats for state legislative races this fall. What do you say to constituents that may still have concerns about the allegations you faced in February?
JF: In that timeframe, in six months I look forward to being exonerated and that these investigations will have concluded in a way that makes the truth plain and public. That I’ve never sexually assaulted or raped anyone.
Not Miss Watson or Dr. Tyson or anyone else—clearing my good name. I believe that the Democrats will be in a strong position to win majorities in the House and Senate. I think that once people see the facts, they’ll understand the truth and allow us to continue to serve and get the kinds of things done that we’ve set out to do.
TR: The voters of Virginia know you, but this has now become a national story. Is there anything you think that Democrats in Congress, or running in 2020 or Republicans or Americans in general should know about you or these allegations that is not already known?
JF: Here’s what I would like America to know about me: That even at an incredibly difficult and emotional time, when I have been faced with allegations that I know not to be true, that I am confident will be shown to not be true, that I stood up for women and survivors to be heard. They should be heard in every case. And also that I stood up for due process and I believe that what is happening now should be a model going forward in how we deal with survivors and their stories. The truth can only come out if it’s heard, and it must be assessed and tested and given due process to make sure we know the truth at the end of the day. I continue to stand firm in being the leader the voters of Virginia elected me to be, to heal deep wounds that have existed in this commonwealth for a long time, and I’m willing to do the work to try to be the leader that they need me to be even in the darkest of times.
Editor’s Note: 2/2/18, 12:13 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to provide more context and clarity regarding the sexual assault allegations against Fairfax.