Written by: Jonathan Martin and Michael Wines
To Constance Cordovilla, president of the Virginia National Organization for Women, the two sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax are not just grounds for him to resign — the detailed claims also demand that women side with his accusers.
“It would set back survivors if we don’t because the message to them would be, ‘Here’s another case where they’re not believed,’” said Cordovilla, a longtime labor and women’s rights advocate, drawing a bright line between the charges against Fairfax and the Virginia governor and attorney general who admitted they once donned blackface. “This is a criminal charge, it’s not like saying I had a picture in my yearbook 40 years ago.”
But to Khadijah Vasser, a 23-year-old employee at the Virginia Bar Association and recent University of Virginia graduate, the matter is less clear-cut.
“I think it’s really unreasonable to ask him to resign so early without having a thorough investigation,” Vasser said of Fairfax, who denies both claims. She added, “I don’t want to see him go just yet because of something that may or may not be true.”
As Virginia comes to terms with the possibility that its executive branch for the next three years could include two men who once mocked African-Americans and a third accused of rape, there is an unmistakable racial divide among progressive female advocates and elected officials about whether to resolutely side with Fairfax’s accusers or to withhold judgment. White women like Cordovilla tend to unhesitatingly line up with the accusers while African-Americans like Vasser want to hear a fuller airing of the charges against Fairfax, who is black, before choosing sides.
These divisions between two vital constituencies for the Democratic Party are agonizing to party officials.
“It is not a race issue, it’s a sexual assault issue,” Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., said.
But Wexton personifies why it is imperative that Virginia Democrats resolve what has become an almost unbearably painful dilemma.
She and two other Democratic women won Republican-held seats last year and will need the support of both women and African-Americans to win next year in their first re-elections. The same is true this fall: With all 140 seats in the state Legislature on the ballot and Democrats on the verge of winning majorities in both chambers, the party will reclaim power only with robust turnout from the same blocs.
And about those state races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in 2021? Democrats will not win them without some of their most dependable voters.
The matter is so delicate for Virginia Democrats that the House caucus sent an email message Monday to members warning them that a New York Times reporter was outside the chamber wanting to talk to female lawmakers. A picture of the reporter and a series of talking points about how to handle questions about Fairfax were included in the message, which was forwarded by a Democrat who requested anonymity to share an internal document.
And in a sign that House Democrats are uneasy about forcing their members, who include 16 African-Americans, to take a firm position about whether to believe the two accusers, the talking points included a proposed answer sidestepping the question.
The allegations “against our Lieutenant Governor are credible and extremely serious and it is why my colleagues and I have called for him to step down,” the talking points said. “It took great courage for both women to share their stories. As Democrats, and as Virginians, we must continue to stand up and speak out against sexual assault.”
But few lawmakers in the state Capitol were willing to be even that expansive, many of them avoiding questions entirely.
Asked about the skittishness, Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn, the minority leader, dodged that question, too.
“We were sent here to do a job and represent 80,000 people and that’s what we’re trying to do, so we’re staying very focused on the job at hand,” she said.
Privately, Democratic lawmakers have been more candid with one another: A Northern Virginia legislator who had planned to file impeachment articles against Fairfax this week backed off after a handful of African-American members implored him, on a Sunday night conference call that grew tense, to keep the issue out of the legislative domain.
But Wexton, who was one of the first high-ranking Virginia Democrats to proclaim last week that she believed Fairfax’s first accuser, said the party had to police its own if it is to take a hard line on Republican transgressions.
“We have to use the same standard with our friends as we do with the folks across the aisle, otherwise it’s hypocritical,” she said. “We can’t engage in whataboutism.”
Yet Courtney A. Hill, an Arlington, Virginia-based political strategist who works with and tries to help elect black candidates in Virginia, argued that the focus on the allegations against Fairfax had been stirred by people who did not want to see another black governor in the state.
“We had Northam and Herring in blackface and standing next to KKK members and now the conversation has shifted to Justin and Justin entirely, and Ralph is going on his apology tour,” Hill said, referring to Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring. “I think race is helping shift that conversation. It doesn’t sit right with me and it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people who look like me.”
Chelsea Higgs Wise, a social justice activist who is black, said that she had campaigned for both Northam and Fairfax and that this was tearing her apart.
“It’s causing a lot of tears,” she said.
On the one hand, she said she felt it was important to believe sexual assault survivors and make sure they were heard, more so when they are black because their stories are often ignored. But she also had to consider the context of how the American justice system treats African-Americans, she said.
“It really is a terrible position to be in,” said Wise, 34, “to believe women, but to also uphold blackness as a priority.”
It is an even more awkward matter for black female legislators, for reasons that are both political and deeply personal. Many of them represent districts that are heavily African-American and in which the most dependable Democratic voters are women. And these lawmakers are deeply conscious of the history of black men in America being wrongfully accused of sexual misconduct.
Lashrecse Aird, who was the youngest woman ever elected to the state House when she won her seat in 2015, acknowledged that conversations at the intersection of race and gender “are always sensitive to have.” But Aird, who is black, said the state needed to use the scandals involving Fairfax, Northam and Herring to grow on both fronts.
“How are we going to take everything that’s happened and move Virginia forward,” she said.
What frustrates Erin Matson, an abortion rights activist in Arlington, is what it will mean to Virginia women if Fairfax remains lieutenant governor, a post that includes the high-profile role of presiding over the state Senate every day the General Assembly is in session.
“When we say we believe women and we trust women, we need to set an example for women and girls throughout out the commonwealth who deserve better,” said Matson, who is white.
The only good outcome to what has been a humiliating and painful episode for Virginia Democrats, say many party officials, would be the election or elevation of more women, particularly minorities.
Few in the Capitol can speak to what a difference it makes to have more women in public life as Delegate Vivian Watts can. The senior-most woman in the House, Watts was first elected in 1981, when the Legislature was still dominated by holdovers from the segregationist, and white male-dominated, political machine once led by Harry F. Byrd.
In a brief interview between meetings, Watts said the stain on Virginia’s three executives had “absolutely” underscored how crucial it is to elect more women in the next round of state elections.
And then she noted how the 2017 legislative elections had enlarged the number of women in the 100-member House to 28 from 17. The gains drastically reshaped the culture of the chamber, which added lactation rooms for new mothers and saw the formation of a Parents Caucus.
“It creates an incredibly different atmosphere,” Watts said, and “an incredibly different tone.”