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Politics & Government

A Year After Accusations, Justin Fairfax Plots Next Act: A Run For Governor

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

About a year ago, Virginia's top leaders were embroiled in controversy. The governor, Ralph Northam, was forced to admit to wearing blackface when he was younger. And the lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, was denying allegations of sexual assault. Now Fairfax is planning a run for governor. Some members of his own Democratic Party wish he wouldn't. Ben Paviour of member station VPM reports from Richmond.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Last year, Justin Fairfax was a man no one wanted in the room. When he tried to buy a table at the Virginia Democrats' annual gala in June, the party refused. This year, they invited him to speak.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.

PAVIOUR: When I sat down with Fairfax, he said the invitation is another sign of his comeback after two women accused him of sexual assault. He spent the last year attacking the media...

JUSTIN FAIRFAX: People love to mindlessly rehash allegations.

PAVIOUR: ...Dismissing his accusers and the politicians he claims are behind them...

FAIRFAX: Do they think that they're going to tear me down with nonsense? Absolutely not.

PAVIOUR: ...And questioning the #MeToo movement.

FAIRFAX: ...'Cause you're in this blind hashtag world - right? - where I can go on Twitter and hashtag something, and then cancel culture is here, right? And people are canceling cancel culture 'cause it's outrageous.

ALEXSIS RODGERS: There seems to be no awareness that the way that he's carrying himself could actually still be harming people to this day and is harming people to this day.

PAVIOUR: Alexsis Rodgers is one of a group of women who walked out of Fairfax's speech at the recent gala. She's involved in a number of local Democratic groups but says she's speaking out as the state director of an advocacy group focused on domestic workers called Care In Action. Rodgers says she believes the stories of Meredith Watson, who accused Fairfax of raping her in 2000, and Vanessa Tyson, who says he assaulted her in 2004.

RODGERS: If you have experienced a crime, if you experienced trauma, you should be able to share that at any point in your life and be heard and be trusted and be valued as a human.

PAVIOUR: The women came forward right when it looked like Fairfax might become Virginia's next governor. Democrats were calling for Governor Northam to resign as he struggled to explain a racist photo in his medical school yearbook page. Watson and Tyson declined requests for interviews for this piece. But in April, they described the alleged assaults to CBS's Gayle King. Tyson said she never met Watson but admired her decision to speak out.

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VANESSA TYSON: I can't even begin to tell you how hard it is to come forward, especially against someone powerful.

PAVIOUR: In September, Fairfax sued CBS for $400 million, saying the network's journalists ignored an unnamed eyewitness and other information. A federal judge threw out the case, but Fairfax says he'll appeal. Prosecutors won't say if they're investigating the women's claims. Watson and Tyson prefer hearings conducted by Virginia's legislature. But Democrats who now run the general assembly haven't shown any appetite for that. Democratic Senator Scott Surovell says the legislature is not the place to take up accusations that are over a decade old.

SCOTT SUROVELL: If there's conduct that occurs during session or during somebody's term of elected office, I think it's much more plausible we would do something about that, as opposed to something that happened before somebody was ever even elected.

PAVIOUR: Democrats also occasionally need Fairfax in the Senate to cast tie-breaking votes. Without him, a key abortion bill would not have passed this year. Some activists say that might be one reason Fairfax is being welcomed back into the fold. He's given a number of recent speeches, including at this year's Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration in Washington, D.C. For 21-year-old college student Erica Neal (ph), Democrats are giving Fairfax a dangerous platform. She also walked out of Fairfax's speech at the gala.

ERICA NEAL: When the party doesn't acknowledge sexual assault or doesn't hold the elected officials accountable for their actions, it sets a precedent.

PAVIOUR: Fairfax says he spent the last year rising like a phoenix from ashes. He's expected to formally announce his run for governor in the coming months. Most political analysts see it as a long shot, but both Fairfax and his critics agree that he should not be overlooked.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.