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Of the three top Democrats currently in peril in Virginia, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax seems in the most trouble. He is the only one who has so far faced an impeachment bill, brought for the allegations of sexual violence levied against him by two women, Dr. Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson.
Tyson alleges that Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him during an encounter at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. (Though the allegation was first reported on February 4th, Tyson did not come forward publicly until two days later.) On February 8th, Watson called on Fairfax to resign when she accused him of raping her in 2000, during their undergraduate days at Duke University. Fairfax has denied both accusations. Regarding Tyson’s allegation, he said in a statement: “I cannot agree with a description of events that I know is not true”; of Watson, he claimed that her allegation is “demonstrably false” and that “I have never forced myself on anyone ever.”
Following pressure from the state’s legislative black caucus, Patrick Hope, the white Democratic lawmaker who had threatened to file the impeachment bill, pulled it back early Monday morning. Democrats were reportedly worried about the optics of impeaching Virginia’s lone black statewide official at a time when Gov. Ralph Northam and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring have been in hot water for their past dalliances with blackface. Northam and Herring engaged in racist behavior, which isn’t against the law — and so therefore is not legal grounds for impeachment in Virginia. Sexual assault is.
It is a shame that Hope’s effort was thwarted, if only because the impeachment process offers exactly what Fairfax and his accusers have been requesting. The lieutenant governor’s accusers have both agreed to testify under oath in any such proceedings, and Fairfax would be able to make his case openly before his colleagues without fear of criminal penalty. Whether or not a simple majority of the Virginia House of Delegates eventually impeached him and the Senate then actually removed him with a two-thirds vote, all parties would have their say, under oath.
Resisting calls from local and national Democrats to resign, Fairfax continues to plead for due process. He told The Root in an interview published Monday that he is confident that “an impartial investigation by the FBI” would clear his name. Based upon my conversations with intelligence experts, it is unlikely that the FBI would get involved in sexual assault cases that were not perpetrated on federal lands. (The FBI itself did not return Rolling Stone’s request for comment.) I believe that Fairfax calling for that kind of inquiry appears to be more about him delaying justice than him seeking it.
Impeachment cuts to the heart of the matter. Though Watson’s attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, tells Rolling Stone that criminal charges “might be something we have to consider,” she has encouraged a fair hearing of the allegations before the Virginia Legislature and Senate. “He wants due process? An impeachment hearing is due process!” Smith says.
Fairfax may be relying, consciously or not, upon the fact that men are more readily believed than women when they are accused of sexual violence. I have found Fairfax difficult to believe thus far. Unlike his accusers, the lieutenant governor has yet to present one person to support his version of either event. While on the one hand he has stated, “Even when faced with those allegations, I am still standing up for everyone’s right to be heard,” NBC News reported him saying privately, “fuck that bitch” about Tyson. In his initial statement, Fairfax wrote that the Washington Post rejected her story in 2017 after discovering “significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegations.” The Post quickly refuted that, saying that isn’t why the paper didn’t publish her account. His attempt to erode Tyson’s integrity backfired; he is the only one who has shown evidence of a credibility gap so far. (Neither a call nor an email to Fairfax’s attorney requesting comment were returned. Fairfax’s office reached out to Rolling Stone prior to the publication of this column, but did not respond to questions concerning the allegations.)
For her part, Watson alleges that prior to her incident with Fairfax, she had confided in him — whom she says she considered a friend — about her claim of being allegedly raped by former Duke basketball player Corey Maggette in 1999. (Maggette denied the allegations, but Duke Basketball is reportedly investigating Watson’s claim.) In a second statement from Watson’s attorney published online, she describes Watson’s encounter with Fairfax after he’d allegedly raped her: outside a fraternity party where she says Fairfax followed her. She then says she confronted him. From the statement:
She turned and asked: “Why did you do it?” Mr. Fairfax answered: “I knew that because of what happened to you last year, you’d be too afraid to say anything.” Mr. Fairfax actually used the prior rape of his “friend” against her when he chose to rape her in a premeditated way.
“Neither that night nor other times I saw her on campus did she give me the impression that it was anything but consensual,” Fairfax told The Root about his encounter with Watson. However, both women have given statements in which they describe avoiding Fairfax consciously after their respective alleged attacks. But even if they had later worked with him, dated him, laughed it up at parties with him, none of that would have been proof Tyson and Watson had said “yes” to what they allege happened those nights.
In the days since, Fairfax has been asked to step down from a board position at his alma mater, been placed on leave at his law firm and has seen a number of key staffers depart since these allegations came about. Despite all this, Watson’s attorney suspects that Fairfax will try to ride this out. “The plan is delay, let things die down, let people forget. Move on to the next crisis created by [President] Trump and push things into secrecy,” she says. “The horrible thing here is the intersection of race and sex, which shows that black women are so at the bottom of the totem pole.”
If he refuses to resign, submitting himself to a public impeachment hearing is the best way for Fairfax to show us that he is the man that he says he is, and to restore a bit of faith in the system he tells Virginians he is still qualified to run.