Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax stunned lawmakers Sunday with an impromptu speech comparing himself to lynching victims from the late-19th and early 20th centuries as he fights to remain in office amid sexual assault allegations.
"I've heard much about anti-lynching on the floor of this very Senate, where people were not given any due process whatsoever, and we rue that," Fairfax said from his rostrum in the Virginia State Senate, referencing legislation the General Assembly passed expressing "profound regret" for lynchings in Virginia between 1877 and 1950.
"And, we talk about hundreds, at least 100 terror lynchings that have happened in the Commonwealth of Virginia under those very same auspices. And yet, we stand here in a rush to judgment with nothing but accusations and no facts and we decide that we are willing to do the same thing," Fairfax added. His remarks, which lasted approximately five minutes, were greeted with stunned silence from state senators.
Fairfax, who is black, has been accused of sexual assault by two women. One of them, Meredith Watson, accused Fairfax of raping her 19 years ago while they were undergraduates at Duke University. The other accuser, Vanessa Tyson, has claimed Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex on him in a Boston hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Tyson's lawyer said last week that Tyson planned to meet with prosecutors in Massachusetts to detail her allegations.
Republicans in the state's House of Delegates last Friday announced plans to hold a public hearing where Fairfax, Tyson and Watson could testify, a move that Fairfax and some Democrats have panned as a political ploy. Watson requested such a hearing in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post last week.
Fairfax has indicated he woud not participate in the hearing, leaving it an open question whether Republicans would try to compel him to testify. Fairfax has said the accusations should be investigated by law enforcement.
House of Delegates Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, a Republican, said Fairfax's comments about lynchings were highly inappropriate.
"That is the worst, most disgusting type of rhetoric he could have invoked," Gilbert said. "It's entirely appropriate for him to talk about due process and we would intend to offer him every ounce of it, and he's welcome to take advantage of that anytime he would like."
Some black lawmakers did not object to Fairfax's speech.
"He said what he needed to say," said Sen. Mamie Locke.
Virginia Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Del. Lamont Bagby said he's heard similar rhetoric from his constituents, who have expressed concerns that Fairfax is being treated unfairly because of his race.
Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both Democrats and both white, are embroiled in their own scandal after acknowledging they wore blackface in the 1980s. Northam has resisted widespread calls to resign and instead said he intended to devote his remaining years in office to addressing the state's deep and lingering racial divisions.
The trio of scandals has rocked Virginia politics and exposed deep divides among Democrats.
State Democrats have expressed fear that the uproar over the governor could jeopardize their chances of taking control of the GOP-dominated Virginia legislature this year. The party made big gains in 2017, in part because of a backlash against President Donald Trump, and has moved to within striking distance of a majority in both houses.
At the same time, the Democrats nationally have taken a hard line against misconduct in their ranks; analysts have pointed out that women and minorities are a vital part of their base and they want to be able to criticize Trump's behavior without appearing hypocritical.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.