As Virginia's governor faces calls to resign over a racist photo, the man who would succeed him is denying an allegation of a 2004 sex assault.
Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax denied a sexual assault allegation on Monday that was reported on the same conservative website that first posted a racist photo found in Gov. Ralph Northam's 1984 yearbook.
Fairfax told reporters on Monday afternoon that the media report alleging an assault in 2004 was false and unsubstantiated.
"It's not only from left field. It's from planet Mars, because it didn't happen," he said.
Fairfax — who would become governor if Northam resigned — said he had never assaulted anyone.
The website Big League Politics published a story late Sunday with an image of a woman's Facebook post about being sexually assaulted at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In the post, the woman said the perpetrator was a man who won statewide office in 2017 and "seems increasingly likely" to get a "very big promotion."
In the Facebook post, the woman did not specifically name Fairfax as the perpetrator.
Fairfax, a married, 39-year-old father of two, said Monday that when he was 25, he had a "100 percent consensual" encounter in a hotel room with a woman he met at the convention.
He said he spoke with The Washington Post about the woman's allegation after she contacted the paper more than a year ago. The Post said they chose not publish a story after being unable to find anyone who could corroborate the accounts of either Fairfax or the woman, according to a Post article published Monday afternoon. Also, the paper said they chose not to publish after finding no similar complaints of sexual misconduct against Fairfax.
According to the Post's article Monday, the woman described an encounter that began consensually and ended with a forced sexual act.
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Fairfax called the re-emergence of the allegation a smear.
"Does anybody think it's any coincidence that on the eve of, potentially, my being elevated that that's when this uncorroborated smear comes out?" he said.
"It goes away for a year and then it crops up at just this moment," he continued.
If Northam resigned, Fairfax would be in line to become the second African-American governor in the state's history. He stopped short of calling for Northam's departure but said he "cannot condone actions" from Northam's past that "suggest a comfort with Virginia's darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping and intimidation."
Northam faces pressure to resign after a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced Friday. The photo shows someone in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam said Friday that he did appear in the photo. On Saturday, he said he was not in the photo but did once put on blackface to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
After Fairfax, Democratic State Attorney General Mark Herring is next in line for the governorship.
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Fairfax has experienced a brief, meteoric rise through Virginia politics. His supporters have touted him as a fresh face whose charisma has allowed him to connect with voters. His detractors suggest he is unproven and inexperienced.
The lieutenant governor has held elected office for only one year. A descendant of slaves, he carried a copy of his ancestor's manumission papers with him as he was sworn in. Since then, he has become best known in Virginia for refusing to preside over the Senate chamber as lawmakers offered tributes to Confederate leaders on Virginia's Lee-Jackson Day, in January. He said he stepped off the dais to honor his family.
Before entering politics, Fairfax served for two years as a federal prosecutor in Alexandria, a prestigious outpost within the Department of Justice that handles numerous high-profile cases. He did not work on any of those cases, however.
Fairfax graduated from Duke University and Columbia Law School. He worked for Tipper Gore during Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. He also worked for former Sen. John Edwards.
Political observers say Fairfax would have an enormous learning curve ahead of him as Virginia's governor.
His biggest challenge would be building effective relationships with the legislature, something it took Northam years to do before he was able to achieve such accomplishments as passing Medicaid expansion last year.
"Is he capable of doing this? Yes, he's a smart person and organized, has some good people around him," Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, said of Fairfax. "But this is an enormous job. A large part of the job is building relationship over time."