When the news broke that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his medical school yearbook included a picture of two men—one dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit and the other in blackface—it was immediately speculated that the controversy around the picture would force him to resign.
If Northam resigned, his immediate successor would be Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Fairfax would be only the second black governor of Virginia if he ascended to that position, but as soon as the talks of his seemingly imminent promotion began, an accusation of sexual assault from 2004 came up, placing his name in scandal as well.
To be clear, Fairfax denies the allegations against him.
On Monday, his chief of staff and communications director issued a statement that said “Lt. Governor Fairfax has an outstanding and well-earned reputation for treating people with dignity and respect. He has never assaulted anyone — ever — in any way, shape or form.”
In their denial, Fairfax’s staff said that the woman making the accusation had previously approached the Washington Post with her story shortly before Fairfax was inaugurated and that the Post had “carefully investigated the claim for several months” but that there were “significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegations” and they could find no one to corroborate the woman’s story.
In setting the record straight, the Post clarified that the woman—now identified as Dr. Vanessa Tyson of Scripps College in California—did approach the paper between November 2017 when Fairfax won his election and January 2018 when he was inaugurated. Tyson told the Post she felt an obligation to speak out.
According to the Post, both Fairfax and Tyson agree that they met at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. They both said they realized they had a mutual friend in common. They both said that Fairfax and Tyson went back to the hotel where Fairfax was staying to pick up some papers from his room.
That is where the two stories diverge. The Post reports Fairfax and Tyson told different versions of what happened in the hotel room that day—a hotel room where no one else was present but the two of them.
The Post was unable to find anyone to corroborate either version of the story. The Post also reported that what Fairfax’s staff said was incorrect: The Post did not find “significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegations.”
Fairfax’s people describe the encounter between him and Tyson as consensual.
On Wednesday, Tyson issued a statement of her own that describes the encounter as anything but consensual.
Be warned: the following account contains a graphic description of sexual assault that may be triggering for some people. It was for me.
Tyson said the encounter began with consensual kissing that she was not opposed to. Although she was surprised that he kissed her, she said “it was not unwelcome” and acknowledged that she kissed him back.
After the kiss, she said Fairfax took her hand and pulled her toward the bed.
“I was fully clothed in a pantsuit,” she wrote, “and had no intention of taking my clothes off or engaging in sexual activity.”
She said Fairfax put his hand on the back of her neck and forcefully pushed her head toward his crotch. It was then that she realized “he had unbuckled his belt, unzipped his pants and taken out his penis.”
She said he then forced his penis into her mouth and she tried to move her head away but was unable to due to the way he was holding down her neck. He was much stronger than her.
Even as she cried and gagged, she said Fairfax forced her to perform oral copulation on him.
“I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual,” she wrote.
“To be very clear, I did not want to engage in oral sex with Mr. Fairfax, and I never gave any form of consent,” she added. She said she “consciously avoided Mr. Fairfax for the remainder of the convention” and never spoke to him again.
Tyson said she experienced deep humiliation and shame after the incident and did not speak about it for years. In October 2017, she saw an article here at The Root discussing Fairfax’s campaign for Lt. Governor of Virginia. That article was triggering for her and moved her to tell her close friends about the incident. She also spoke with a friend at the Post about it.
The Post decided in March 2018 not to run her story according to her account, and she felt “powerless, frustrated and completely drained.” She said she buried the trauma once again and focused on her work.
When the Northam story broke and word of Fairfax possibly succeeding him became the national headline, she felt “a jarring sense of of both outrage and despair.” She wrote about her frustration in a private post on Facebook. In the post, she did not identify Fairfax by name, but only said the “campaign staffer” who assaulted her “during the Democratic Convention in 2004 was about to get a big promotion.”
The next morning, she received inquiries from journalists who had been made aware of her post. She wrestled with the decision of going public with her story and was forced into action when her Facebook post, her name and her image were made public by the same publication that had made public the blackface photo on Northam’s yearbook page.
“With tremendous anguish, I am now sharing this information about my experience and setting the record straight,” she wrote. “It has been extremely difficult to relive the traumatic experience from 2004. Mr. Fairfax has tried to brand me as a liar to a national audience, in service to his political ambitions, and has threatened litigation.
“Given his false assertions, I’m compelled to make clear what happened. I very much wish to resume my life as an academic and professor. I do not want to get further embroiled in this highly charged political environment.”
“This is the only statement I and my legal team will be making,” she concluded.
The Root has reached out to Justin Fairfax for comment, and this story will be updated if he or his team chooses to respond.
Updated Wednesday Feb. 6, 2019, 5:45 p.m. EST: Members of Justin Fairfax’s staff sent the following statement from Fairfax to The Root’s Politics Editor Jason Johnson:
Reading Dr. Tyson’s account is painful. I have never done anything like what she suggests.
As I said in my statement this morning, I have nothing to hide.
Any review of the circumstances would support my account, because it is the truth. I take this situation very seriously and continue to believe Dr. Tyson should be treated with respect. But, I cannot agree to a description of events that simply is not true.
I support the aims of the MeToo movement and I believe that people should always be heard and the truth should be sought. I wish Dr. Tyson the best as I do our Commonwealth.
In other news, it looks like this case may be a rematch of Christine Blasey Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh of sorts.
Community Idea Stations reports that Fairfax has retained the services of Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz, which is the same firm that represented Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court nominee Senate confirmation hearings.
Rakesh Kilaru, a partner with Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz, told the station “I can confirm that I and my firm have been representing the Lieutenant Governor since January 2018.”
Fairfax reportedly retained the firm when the Washington Post was investigating Tyson’s allegations for a possible story.
For her part, Tyson has retained the firm of Katz, Marshall and Banks according to NPR. The Washington, D.C.-based firm is the same one that assisted Christine Blasey Ford when she came forward with her allegations against Kavanaugh.