Eyes On Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax As Gov. Northam Resists Calls To Resign With Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's future in doubt over a racist photo, many are looking to the next in line. But now Fairfax is defending himself against a sexual assault allegation.

Eyes On Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax As Gov. Northam Resists Calls To Resign

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Two political careers are right at the edge of change in Virginia this morning. One is that of Governor Ralph Northam. The Democrat apologized for a racist photo discovered in his medical school yearbook from 1984. But he then said the photo did not show him. And he has been trying to keep his job amid many calls to resign. The other career right on the edge is the man who would take charge if Northam is pushed out. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax is only the second African-American elected statewide in Virginia history. NPR's Brakkton Booker has this profile.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Even before Justin Fairfax won his last election, he was getting a lot of buzz. Here's former President Barack Obama telling a Richmond crowd in 2017 that Justin Fairfax would make Virginia proud.


BARACK OBAMA: Justin went to college, went to law school, gave over his life to public service just to make sure that any striving young kid could have the same chances he did.


BOOKER: At his victory speech a few weeks later, Justin Fairfax thanked two titans of Virginia politics. The first, Linwood Holton - he's the Republican governor who took office in 1970 and helped put an end to segregation practices in Virginia. The other shout-out was to the only other African-American ever elected statewide.


JUSTIN FAIRFAX: And I also stand on the shoulders of a great man, L. Douglas Wilder, who was elected lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1985 and governor 1989. And I thank him for his leadership.

BOOKER: Fairfax got his undergrad degree from Duke and studied law at Columbia, both on scholarship. His wife is a dentist, and they have two young kids. At 39 years old, Justin Fairfax is a lot of things Governor Ralph Northam is not - young, charismatic and part of a multicultural wave sweeping through Virginia's Democratic Party. Here's Fairfax speaking on WAMU's "Kojo Nnamdi Show" the day after his 2017 victory.


FAIRFAX: Virginia will be the match that sparks the wildfire of progressive change all across this country. And I believe that that's what's going to happen.

BOOKER: Since the racist photo of Northam's yearbook page surfaced, demonstrations popped up outside the governor's mansion.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey, hey, no governor in the KKK. Oh, oh.

BOOKER: Virginia Democratic Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have called on Northam to resign. So have presidential hopefuls Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California. Former Vice President Joe Biden has too, adding on Twitter that, quote, "Justin Fairfax is the leader Virginia needs now." For his part, Fairfax told NBC4 in Washington he hoped the governor would make the right decision.


FAIRFAX: We're at this really important inflection moment in the history of Virginia and of this nation. And we need leaders and leadership that can unite us.

BOOKER: Fairfax assuming the role of uniter in chief may be just what Virginia needs at this moment. That's according to Rachel Bitecofer. She's a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.

RACHEL BITECOFER: I do think there is a lot of symbolic value from having Justin Fairfax become the state's governor at this particular juncture in American politics because, particularly here in Virginia, racial politics have just been so much in the limelight.

BOOKER: She points to the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville about a year and a half ago. Then there was this just a few weeks ago on the floor of the Virginia Senate.


UNIDENTIFIED REPRESENTATIVE: Mr. President, I rise today to celebrate the 212th birthday of Robert E. Lee.

BOOKER: Elected officials paid tribute to Confederate icon General Robert E. Lee. As lieutenant governor, Fairfax normally presides over the chamber. But instead, he sat in quiet protest. Fairfax is a descendant of a slave, Simon Fairfax, who was emancipated in 1798. He explained his boycott to member station WVTF.


FAIRFAX: I want to be clear that, you know, my children, my grandchildren, you know, will not see me on videotape presiding over a motion honoring people who fought for a set of laws and a society that would have enslaved, you know, members of their family.

JEFFREY BOURNE: It was the right thing to do for him. It was the right thing to do for Virginia.

BOOKER: That's Jeffrey Bourne. He's a Democrat in the Virginia House of Delegates and a member of the black legislative caucus. He says with that protest, Fairfax sent a message that racism and bigotry are things in Virginia's distant past.

BOURNE: It was a great testament and an example of who Justin Fairfax is and who Justin Fairfax will be in his public service life.

BOOKER: He hopes the next call to service for Justin Fairfax will come soon when he's sworn in as the 74th governor of Virginia. Brakkton Booker, NPR News.

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