Why didn't Democrats immediately call on Justin Fairfax to resign?
Posted February 7, 2019 5:02 p.m. EST
Updated February 8, 2019 6:06 p.m. EST
CNN — Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, is facing a serious allegation that at the 2004 Democratic National Convention he sexually assaulted a woman. The accuser, Vanessa Tyson, has come forward, putting a name to her allegations. Fairfax has denied all of the allegations but also has, in at least one private meeting, savaged Tyson and those who support her.
On Friday, a second woman came forward to say that she was raped by Fairfax when they attended Duke University in 2000. Fairfax denied the accusation Friday, and said that he would not resign.
The situation will change quickly from here, but as of Friday afternoon, no major Democratic presidential candidate -- or other party leader -- had called for Fairfax's resignation. Instead they had, almost to a person, called for an investigation into the allegations.
But after the second accuser came out, many Democrats spoke up. For a full list, follow along with CNN's breaking coverage here.
That reaction stands in stark contrast to the rush of resignation calls for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, also a Democrat, in the wake of a picture featuring two men -- one in blackface, the other in Ku Klux Klan robes -- appearing on his medical school yearbook page. Within 48 hours of the news breaking last Friday, every 2020 candidate (or would-be 2020 candidate) had called for Northam to step aside. (Northam initially said he was one of the two men in the photo, but later recanted.)
Asked earlier this week about the first allegation against Fairfax, a series of high-profile Democrats reiterated their call for Northam to resign but wouldn't engage on that possibility in regard to Fairfax. "We will learn more about that," Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) said. "But it doesn't change the fact that Northam needs to resign."
Why the obvious double standard? Particularly given that Democrats have adopted a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to those accused of sexual assault -- insisting that women coming forward to make these allegations should be believed. (California Sen. Kamala Harris, in explaining her vote against Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, said this: "When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward with serious and credible allegations of sexual assault, not only was she attacked by Senate Republicans, she was mocked by the President of the United States.")
The answer on "why" is complicated, but comes down to two things: Politics and race.
Let's start with the politics.
One of the main reasons politicians were so quick to call for Northam's resignation over the blackface picture that he was/wasn't in was because Fairfax was waiting in the wings -- a 39-year-old, African-American rising star within the party. What better way to button up a racial scandal than to replace the blackface-wearing governor with a young black politician who is the descendant of Virginia slaves? (When Fairfax was sworn in as lieutenant governor, he had the papers freeing his great-great-great grandfather with him.)
It was seen, rightly, by politicians and Democratic strategists as the most elegant possible solution to a very thorny political problem.
There is no similarly simple solution to the allegations against Fairfax. In fact, it's all grown much more complicated, with Fairfax battling sexual assault allegations while not only Northam, but also state Attorney General Mark Herring, are dealing with blackface allegations from their pasts.
Which leads me to the second major factor in the hesitancy to demand Fairfax's resignation. We have three Democratic politicians in deep, uh, stuff in Virginia at the moment: A black politician facing allegations that he forced women into unwanted sexual relations and two white politicians besieged not only by their own poor judgment on racial matters but also the long and ongoing troubles the Commonwealth has had with race.
Virginia was the site of the Charlottesville white supremacist march in 2017 that left a counter-protester dead. Virginia was the site of the so-called "Massive Resistance"-- a movement led by Democratic Sen. Harry Byrd, Sr. aimed at using legislation to keep the Commonwealth's public schools from integrating. Virginia was home to the capital of the Confederacy. And on and on.
Add all of that to Donald Trump in the White House -- and his clear use of racial animus for his own political gain -- and you are left with a toxic political stew.
The simple fact here is this: There's no easy way out of this politically. The three top-ranking Democrats in the state -- including, in Fairfax and Herring, the two frontrunners for the 2021 Democratic gubernatorial nomination -- are all embroiled in scandals that could bring any or all three of them down. Given the uncertainty of what the "right" thing to do is, most Democratic politicians are trying to buy themselves some time to see how all this shakes out.
One notable exception to this practiced silence on Fairfax is Democratic Virginia Rep. Don McEachin. "I think Justin has handled the situation poorly," McEachin, who is black, told CNN's Manu Raju. "One of the curses of being an African-American man in the United States is you don't get to play the angry black man."