Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is a lot of things Virginia’s current governor is not: young, charismatic and part of a multicultural wave sweeping through the commonwealth’s Democratic party.
He could soon be called upon to lead the state, should Gov. Ralph Northam, a fellow Democrat, reverse course and adhere to the avalanche of calls – from inside and outside of Virginia — for him to resign.
If that happens, Fairfax would only be the second African-American governor to serve in the history of Virginia, and one of just a few across the country since reconstruction.
Fairfax, who is 39, was seen as a rising star within the party long before the controversy surrounding Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page, which includes a picture depicting one man in blackface and one dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member, erupted late last week.
The silent protest
Since assuming office a little more than a year ago, Fairfax has drawn praise for standing up against celebrations of Virginia’s racist past.
As lieutenant governor, one of Fairfax’s duties is to preside over the state senate. Last month, on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, while elected officials paid tribute to the Confederate general, Fairfax stepped off the dais and sat in quiet protest.
“I want to be clear that my children, my grandchildren 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 members of their family,” Fairfax said shortly after the protest to member station WVTF.
“It was the right thing to do for him and the right thing to do for Virginia,” says Jeffrey Bourne, a Democrat in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Bourne is a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which has called for Northam’s resignation. He says Fairfax’s protest sent a message that racism and bigotry are things in Virginia’s distant past.
“It was a great testament and an example of who Justin Fairfax is, and who Justin Fairfax will be in his public service life.”
Fairfax is descendant of a Virginia slave, named Simon Fairfax, who was emancipated in 1798. The lieutenant governor says that he had a copy of his great-great-great grandfather’s manumission documents in his pocket when he was sworn into office in 2018.
Fairfax received his undergrad degree from Duke University and studied law at Columbia, both on scholarship. Before becoming taking office, he served as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
His wife, Dr. Cerina Fairfax, is a dentist who has a family practice in Northern Virginia. They have two young children, Cameron and Carys.
For his part, Fairfax has not called on Northam to resign following the revelation that Governor’s yearbook page included a racist photo.
In a statement Saturday, Fairfax said he was “shocked and saddened” by the images. And told NBC4 in Washington that he hoped the governor would come to the right decision.
“We’re at this really important inflection moment in the history of Virginia, and this nation, and we need leaders and leadership that can unite us,” Fairfax said.
Northam apologized for appearing in the photo late Friday and “for the hurt that decision has caused then and now.” On Saturday, he reversed his position saying he was actually not in the photo.
“Fairfax is the leader Virginia needs now”
Virginia Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have called on Northam to resign. So have leading presidential hopefuls Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.
So did former Vice President Joe Biden who also tweeted over the weekend that “Justin Fairfax is the leader Virginia needs now.”
Not to mention President Donald Trump and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who have also called for a resignation.
Rachel Bitecofer, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, says Fairfax leading Virginia through this time of healing could be a good thing for Virginia.
“I do think there’s a lot of symbolic value from having Justin Fairfax become the state’s governor at this critical juncture in American politics, particularly here in Virginia where racial politics have been so much in the limelight.”
She points to the deadly clashes in Charlottesville, Va., at a Unite the Right rally, and to 2018 GOP senate nominee Corey Stewart, who ran as a champion of Confederate values.
She adds that should Fairfax serve the remainder of Northam’s term, he would be eligible to run for a full four-year term in 2021. Under Virginia’s Constitution, governors are limited to one four-year term. But because Fairfax would assume the role, he could run again.