Lingering doubts over Gov. Ralph Northam’s political future after the publication of a racist yearbook photo could propel an African-American political newcomer into the governor’s mansion.
If Northam stepped down, Justin Fairfax would be the second African-American governor in Virginia’s history and just the fourth in the entire United States since Reconstruction.
Fairfax has experienced a brief, meteoric rise through Virginia politics. His supporters have touted him as a fresh face whose charisma has allowed him to connect with voters. His detractors suggest he is unproven and inexperienced.
His ascension could mean that the racial scandal dogging Northam would end with an African-American governor trying to lead the Democratic Party to a takeover of the legislature in November and potentially, through a quirk of law, being able to serve more than one term.
On Monday, Fairfax was drawn into a controversy of his own. He denied an allegation of sexual misconduct first reported by a conservative website, calling it a “smear.” Fairfax said the 2004 encounter with a woman was consensual. The Associated Press is not reporting the accusation because AP has not able to confirm it.
The Washington Post said Monday that it was approached by the woman in 2017, carefully investigated, but didn’t publish the accusations. The Post said the woman had not told anyone about it, the account could not be corroborated, Fairfax denied it and the Post was unable to find other allegations against him.
The 39-year-old lieutenant governor has held elected office for only one year. A descendant of slaves, he carried a copy of his ancestor’s manumission papers with him as he was sworn in. Since then, he has become best known in Virginia for refusing to preside over the Senate chamber as lawmakers offered tributes to Confederate leaders on Virginia’s Lee-Jackson Day, in January. He said he stepped off the dais to honor his family.
Before entering politics, Fairfax served for two years as a federal prosecutor in Alexandria, a prestigious outpost within the Department of Justice that handles numerous high-profile cases. He did not work on any of those cases, however.
Gene Rossi, a 30-year veteran of the Justice Department and one of the prosecutors who helped train Fairfax, said the lieutenant governor has “an incredibly acute legal mind” and is a quick study who could “hit the ground running.”
“I think he has what it takes to become governor and lead us out of this,” Rossi said in a phone interview Monday morning, before Fairfax addressed the sexual assault allegation publicly.
Fairfax and Rossi ended up as opponents in the 2017 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, which Fairfax won handily.
Political observers say Fairfax would have an enormous learning curve ahead of him as Virginia’s governor.
His biggest challenge would be building effective relationships with the legislature, something it took Northam years to do before he was able to achieve such accomplishments as passing Medicaid expansion last year.
“Is he capable of doing this? Yes, he’s a smart person and organized, has some good people around him,” Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, said of Fairfax. “But this is an enormous job. A large part of the job is building relationship over time.”
Fairfax graduated from Duke University and Columbia Law School. He worked for Tipper Gore during Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. He also worked for former Sen. John Edwards.
A native of Annandale, his first run for office came in 2013, when he ran for attorney general against Mark Herring, a state senator who was much better known in Democratic political circles. Herring won, but Fairfax got 48 percent of the vote and impressed party leaders as a potential up-and-comer. He stayed active in Democratic politics and campaigned heavily for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner in his narrow re-election bid in 2014.
During the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, Republican opponent Jill Holtzmann Vogel attacked Fairfax’s lack of experience. At one debate, she said he was not sufficiently informed to “talk intelligently” about issues. Democrats saw the remark as an unfair attack with racial overtones.
Fairfax won with nearly 53 percent of the vote as Democrats, including Northam, swept all three statewide elections in 2017.
Should Northam resign, Fairfax would have the unusual opportunity in 2021 to seek another term as governor since he was not elected in the first place. Virginia law only allows governors to be elected to a single four-year term.
“This scenario could not only create Virginia’s second African-American governor, but an environment where the second African-American governor would have the opportunity to have almost a seven-year term,” said University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth. The state’s first African-American governor, Douglas Wilder, served from 1990 to 1994.