Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax compared the calls for him to resign following sexual assault allegations against him in 2019 to the high-profile killings of two Black men, using the comment to attack former Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday during the first debate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
“We can’t just talk theoretically about what generally happens, but we have a real-world example where I was falsely accused in 2019,” said Fairfax, who is Black. “Everyone here on the stage called for my immediate resignation, including Terry McAuliffe. … He treated me like George Floyd. He treated me like Emmett Till – no due process, immediately assumed my guilt.”
CNN has reached out to McAuliffe for comment on Fairfax’s statement.
The remark from the lieutenant governor was unprompted and came after a question about policing and the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged in the death of Floyd. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and his trial is ongoing. Chauvin has pleaded not guilty.
The murder of Emmett Till, who was just 14 years old when he was brutally killed in 1955, is seen as a seminal moment in the fight for civil rights in the middle of the 20th century. The gruesome photos of Till’s dead body provided a jarring visual of violence and discrimination in the South. Till was falsely accused of flirting with a 21-year-old White woman, leading the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother to beat Till before shooting him in the head. An all-White jury acquitted the men of the murder.
Fairfax said during the answer that the “murder of George Floyd was horrific,” adding that it “recalls a history in Virginia and in our nation where African Americans, particularly African American men, are presumed to be guilty, are treated inhumanely, are given no due process.”
Fairfax is one of five Democrats vying to be the next governor of Virginia, joining McAuliffe, former Virginia state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, Del. Lee Carter and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan onstage.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam cannot run for reelection, because the Virginia Constitution prohibits governors from serving two successive terms.
The allegations against Fairfax were made in a tumultuous time for Virginia politics and came shortly after Northam had been accused of appearing in blackface in a decades-old photo. As the Northam scandal played out, two women accused Fairfax of sexual assault, the first becoming public on a conservative website that covers Virginia politics and the second in a Washington Post story.
Fairfax has repeatedly denied the allegations and called for investigations into the accusations, saying he was “confident” that it would clear his name.
“Because of the nature of these allegations, they should be assessed by professional law enforcement investigators who have the tools and the training to determine whether or not the allegations are true,” Fairfax said in a statement at the time.
All the Democrats onstage Tuesday, in some way, had called on Fairfax to resign over the allegations in 2019. McClellan was a leader in the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus when the group called on Fairfax to resign but did not personally put out a statement. But it is the fact that McAuliffe called on Fairfax to resign so quickly that has long bothered the lieutenant governor.
McClellan was the first candidate to respond to Fairfax on Tuesday, saying, “The murders of Emmett Till and George Floyd were traumatic and triggering for generations of Black people. The Lt. Gov’s comparison was shocking, unseemly, and insensitive.”
Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke responded to criticism of his comments, saying: “There’s no one addressing these allegations were never investigated as his opponents keep bringing up justice reform and the overall treatment of Black men.”
In an interview with CNN earlier this year, Fairfax said voters were “totally against the politics of the past and the traditional tactics of personal destruction that we have seen govern for too long.”
Fairfax’s comment on Tuesday came at the end of an otherwise tame debate that focused primarily on battling the coronavirus, curbing gun violence and revamping criminal justice.
McAuliffe, four years removed from his time as governor, is attempting to do something that few other Virginians have done: Serve two terms as governor.
The three other Democrats onstage in addition to Fairfax – Carter, Foy and McClellan – also looked to critique McAuliffe in different ways, but the bulk of the debate was far more focused on what each candidate would do in office.
McClellan’s most direct attack on McAuliffe came when she said the former governor “could have gone farther” on guns during his four years in office.
Speaking about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected families in Virginia, Foy mentioned her family’s student loan debt and the cost of child care, adding, “We need a governor that understands the challenges that Virginia families face. I don’t have to empathize, because I understand.”
McAuliffe, much like his campaign to date, largely focused on his own plans.
When Foy attacked him on guns, the former governor said the bill that was passed was bipartisan and noted that McClellan, who was standing next to him, had helped to pass it.
McAuliffe repeatedly attempted to position himself as the person with the most experience for the job, especially amid a crisis like the coronavirus.
The former governor pledged to focus on the pandemic – “I want to first thank Gov. Ralph Northam,” he said in his first answer of the debate – and said the commonwealth will soon have enough vaccine doses for everyone – including himself.
“I still don’t have it; I’m too young,” the 64-year-old former governor said with a smile. “I don’t fit the category yet, so I’m still waiting to get my vaccine. But as soon as we move it up, I will get it.”