In February 2019, Dr. Vanessa Tyson ’98 publicly came forward accusing Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault. More than 150 University students and community members signed a letter standing with her in solidarity and calling for Fairfax’s resignation. Sadly, one year later, Fairfax is still in office.
It’s hard to overstate the controversy that engulfed Virginia’s constitutional officers last winter. It began with the publication of blackface and KKK costume images from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) medical school yearbook. Almost instantly, members of Northam’s party demanded his resignation. This included a majority of the Democratic State Legislative Caucus and other prominent political figures, amounting to nearly all of the Commonwealth's senators and congressmen.
During the scandal, Northam apologized and admitted that he was pictured in the photos, only to change his mind, recalling a separate occasion when he did do blackface. For a moment, it looked as if Northam would be forced to leave office, and Fairfax would assume the role. This is what prompted Dr. Tyson, and later, Meredith Watson, to go public with their allegations that Fairfax had assaulted them.
It is likely that Northam could not have stayed in office if the two men in line to succeed him were not also embroiled in scandals (State Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to doing blackface). Virginia Democrats tempered their calls for resignation when they realized that if all three men were removed from office, the Republican Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates would inherit the governorship. As a result, Northam, Fairfax, and Herring held onto their offices.
Despite these scandals, Virginia Democrats managed to gain control of the House of Delegates and Senate last November. They moved swiftly to pass a plethora of progressive reforms, including protecting abortion access, signing the Equal Rights Amendment, and adopting gun control measures. However, no action has been taken regarding Northam, Fairfax, or Herring, despite the fact that Democrats now control the speakership.
Especially in the case of Fairfax, the failure of state Democrats to take action is damning. Fairfax described one of his accusers as a “bitch” and blamed one of his political rivals for fabricating the allegations. Then he sued CBS News for interviewing Tyson and Watson, claiming it amounted to defamation, for a claim of $400 million. The Washington Post Editorial Board, Watson, and Tyson have all called for hearings of the state legislature under oath so that a formal fact-finding process can ensue. Fairfax, on the other hand, opposes the General Assembly taking any action, and they seem to have ceded to his request.
While there may not be sufficient evidence for Fairfax to be prosecuted, let alone convicted in a court of law, there is cause for the Virginia General Assembly to grant Tyson and Watson the chance to be heard. Democrats have the power to hold these hearings. A year ago, many of them were prepared to call for his resignation. Today, they seem to no longer care.
Given all that’s been said about the “unforgiving nature” of the #MeToo movement and “cancel culture,” comparatively little attention has focused on the forgetful nature of the body politic, with regards to sexual assault allegations. The Fairfax saga is just one story that fits into a larger pattern. More than twenty women have raised credible allegations of sexual harassment and assault committed by President Trump, but this is barely discussed, despite Trump’s all-consuming effect on the media. Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas are regular topics of debate as well, but allegations of their sexual harassment and assault frequently go without mention.
A year ago, when I signed onto the public letter, I was confident that Fairfax would be forced to resign. Today, not only does he remain lieutenant governor, but he also plans to run for the governorship in 2021. The lack of hearings ought to bring shame upon the members of the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate, while the fact that Fairfax is still plotting a gubernatorial campaign should bring shame on the rest of us. This year, collective amnesia seems to have triumphed; going forward, we must resolve to better remember.
Zachariah Sippy is a sophomore from Lexington, Ky. He can be reached at zsippy@Princeton.edu.