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Five Democrats are competing to win the party's nomination for governor of Virginia. One of those candidates is Virginia's lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax. In 2019, two women accused him of sexual assault. But those accusations, which Fairfax has repeatedly denied, haven't forced him out of office or out of the race for governor. Here's Ben Paviour from member station VPM in Richmond.
BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Two years after two women came forward to accuse him of sexual assault, Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax maintains his innocence.
JUSTIN FAIRFAX: It is an incredible miscarriage of justice to falsely accuse someone of these types of crimes and there be no accountability.
PAVIOUR: In 2019, Fairfax ordered and passed two polygraph tests. His legal team has pointed out what they say are inconsistencies in his accusers' stories. Fairfax has also connected the allegations against him to larger injustices against Black men. Here he is on the debate stage last month, laying into the front-runner in the race, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe.
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FAIRFAX: He treated me like George Floyd; he treated me like Emmett Till - no due process, immediately assumed my guilt.
PAVIOUR: And some of his supporters agree.
TOMMY BENNETT: People really get intimidated when you can articulate and move forward and make things happen.
PAVIOUR: Tommy Bennett is a Democratic Party activist in Danville, a small southern Virginia city. Bennett says the lieutenant governor was targeted by his political enemies because he's a Black man on the rise.
BENNETT: He sort of sound like Barack Obama when he started.
PAVIOUR: But the lieutenant governor hasn't raised much money. And he trails McAuliffe, the leading Democrat, by some 40 points. That hasn't dissuaded Bennett.
BENNETT: He still can pull it off.
PAVIOUR: Even if the accusations from February 2019 are hanging over his campaign. That's when the two Black women came forward. Vanessa Tyson accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her in 2004. Two days later, Meredith Watson accused Fairfax of raping her in 2000 while they were students at Duke University. The lieutenant governor says the encounters were consensual and repeatedly called for investigations by law enforcement. And, he says, the accusations are politically motivated.
FAIRFAX: It becomes a complete injustice and one that mirrors a history of racial injustice.
PAVIOUR: Neither Tyson nor Watson agreed to comment for this story. Fairfax says their refusal to publicly respond to his rebuttals undermines their credibility. Debra Katz, an attorney representing Tyson, says her client stands by her claims. She says Fairfax is trying to intimidate his accusers.
DEBRA KATZ: The fact that Justin Fairfax is still here seems to be exactly what politicians are doing these days.
PAVIOUR: Katz has represented women involved in high-profile sexual misconduct accusations, including ones involving Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. She says they represent a troubling trend in the #MeToo movement.
KATZ: Act completely indignant, never apologize, cede no ground. And to the extent that there is an apology, as in the case of Cuomo, it's I'm sorry you felt bad.
PAVIOUR: Katz says the #MeToo movement scored some important victories.
KATZ: And yet, we're in a pandemic now. Priorities have shifted, and there's less of an urgency, it seems.
PAVIOUR: Still, in Virginia, many Democrats keep Justin Fairfax at arm's length.
ADELE MCCLURE: A lot of people think if you ignore Justin, then he'll just go away.
PAVIOUR: Adele McClure is Fairfax's former policy director.
MCCLURE: And trust me. Like, I definitely hoped that that was the case so I wouldn't have to be speaking to you right now.
PAVIOUR: McClure now serves as director of Virginia's Legislative Black Caucus. She says she's speaking out because she's worried Fairfax uses his public office to bully his accusers.
MCCLURE: He can't wait to get to that governor's office because not only does he feel entitled to it, but he knows that he can wield even greater power over those who spoke against him.
PAVIOUR: Fairfax, through an attorney, alleged to NPR that McClure is speaking out because she's supporting a different candidate. McClure hasn't made any public endorsements. She says before she resigned as Fairfax's policy director, she wanted to believe in a man she once considered a friend.
MCCLURE: I put everything into defending Justin and stood by loyally and just felt completely betrayed.
PAVIOUR: McClure says she began to lose faith in Fairfax after Tyson released a statement. McClure found it compelling and alleges other staff worked to undermine Tyson.
MCCLURE: And they were desperately, desperately, throughout the week, trying to catch her in a lie to discredit her.
PAVIOUR: McClure alleges they considered a plan that called for using Black women and anonymous social media accounts to question Tyson's credibility.
MCCLURE: I was just like, no, we cannot attack - we can't attack her.
PAVIOUR: McClure says she thought the plan was later dropped. Fairfax did not respond to NPR's questions about McClure's account. His former chief of staff, Larry Roberts, said he did not recall those conversations and would not have backed that kind of plan. Fairfax has used Twitter to call out the women by name, labeling them false accusers.
Debra Katz, the attorney who represents Tyson, says others have seemed to follow Fairfax's lead. She's noticed a handful of anonymous accounts that attack the lieutenant governor's critics. NPR has not confirmed who is behind the accounts.
KATZ: I believe that this is a weaponized use of Twitter and social media, and I believe it's part of coordinated campaigns. And it does have a chilling effect on women.
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FAIRFAX: We are going to win and win big in 2021 with your help. Thank you all so much. God bless you all.
PAVIOUR: Fairfax has had a busy spring. He's crisscrossed the state in a low-key, low-budget campaign focused on education and racial justice. Still, the accusations are on voters' minds. Monica Hutchinson is a Democratic Party activist who lives outside of Richmond. She says whether the accusations against Fairfax are true or not...
MONICA HUTCHINSON: We cannot have anybody be the head of our state with anything - with any dark cloud like that hanging over their head.
PAVIOUR: Instead, Hutchinson is backing state Senator Jennifer McClellan. McClellan and another candidate, Jennifer Carroll Foy, are running to become the first Black women elected governor in the U.S. Hutchinson says Black women are ready for a change.
HUTCHINSON: Every single election, we show up. But when it's time to pay it back, to let Black women lead, there's always a but, but, but. And Black women are tired of it.
PAVIOUR: It's not clear what Fairfax will do if he loses the primary. Either way, he says he plans on continuing a career in public service.
For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond.
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