Justin Fairfax is one of only a handful of African Americans seeking statewide office in the 2017 election cycle, but after Tuesday’s primary, he’s managed to leap over his first major hurdle.
Fairfax trounced his primary competitor Susan Platt 49 percent to 39 percent to secure the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of Virginia.
It was not an easy race for Fairfax, an attorney who hails from Pittsburgh but grew up in the rough parts of Washington, D.C., in the ’80s and ’90s. He had run and lost a close election for Virginia attorney general back in 2013. This time he went bigger, seeking the lieutenant governorship, and had to face off against Susan Platt, a well-funded lobbyist many believed to be the preferred lieutenant gubernatorial candidate of incumbent Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
In addition, the “conventional wisdom,” also known as Southern Democrats, didn’t believe that a young African-American man like Fairfax would be able to win across the southern, western and more conservative parts of Virginia, and that a white woman would be able to win by securing the white female vote. How’d that work out for Hillary Clinton? It turns out that a candidate with a solid background and a long history in the state who doesn’t get caught faking endorsements from the American Civil Liberties Union can win a primary during a year of “resistance.”
But this wasn’t just any primary. Enthusiasm among Virginia Democrats was so high, turnout jumped from 319,000 in 2009 to more than 500,000 Tuesday night, with votes for Fairfax still being counted as of this writing (total GOP primary turnout Tuesday was about 350,000). As part of our ongoing On the Run: Campaign 2017 series focusing on African Americans running in 2017, we caught up with Fairfax at his victory party Tuesday night.
The Root: Congratulations, Mr. Fairfax. What put you over the top against a candidate many believed was the preferred establishment pick of the sitting governor?
Justin Fairfax: I think it was our message, really. It always focused on Virginians, making sure more people can afford their homes without taking on crushing debt, helping people with student loan debt, making high-quality vocational and technical training available for everyone, expanding Medicaid for over 400,000 people in Virginia. Just giving people the elements that allow so many families to thrive in this state.
The message of resisting the divisive hatred, xenophobia, racism and misogyny out there is what we’re about. This campaign isn’t about me, or politicians, it’s about everyone out there in Virginia getting a chance.
TR: How does it feel to be a part of history?
JF: Well, I do stand on the shoulders of giants. Doug Wilder and the barriers he broke down, I couldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for [Wilder,] who was elected the first black lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1985, then went on to get elected governor in 1990. I definitely keep that a part of my perspective, but I really have always been focused more on the future than history.
TR: You may reach that historic level if one day as lieutenant governor you officially pardon a future Hall of Fame NBA player like Doug Wilder did.
JF: [Laughter.] Yes, I know Iverson. Well, there is that! [Laughter.] This is a special night, though; we covered over 40,000 miles during the campaign, and I’m always oriented towards giving people a bigger, better and brighter future.
TR: One last question: You are from Pittsburgh even though you grew up in D.C. and Virginia. Are you happy about the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup?
JF: [Laughter.] Well, you know, I’m happy when my mom is happy. And she’s happy the Pens won, so that’s good enough for me!
Justin Fairfax will face off against Republican nominee for lieutenant governor Jill Vogel in the general election this November.