Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a 39-year-old lawyer whose surname comes from the plantation owner that a Northern Virginia county is name after, could become only the second African American governor in the state’s history if current Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is forced from office.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Fairfax’s family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1984, the same year that a racist photo appeared on Northam’s page in the yearbook of the Eastern Virginia Medical College in Norfolk, Virginia, where Northam attended medical school.
Fairfax, who graduated from Columbia Law School in New York City, moved to Fairfax County, Virginia in 2005 when he clerked for U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee. Along with serving as a federal prosecutor in Alexandria, Virginia, Fairfax has worked in private practice.
Early in his career, Fairfax immersed himself in Democratic politics. He worked as a staffer on former Sen. John Edwards’ (D) presidential campaign in 2004. Ten years later, Fairfax served as co-chair of Sen. Mark Warner’s (D) reelection campaign.
Last September, Fairfax joined the Washington law firm of Morrison & Foerster as a partner in its commercial and white-collar defense groups. Fairfax separately performs his duties as Virginia lieutenant governor, which is a part-time role under Virginia law.
In 1989, Douglas Wilder became the first African American to be elected governor of Virginia, where governors are legally limited to only one term. Fairfax would still be able to run for a full four-year term as governor in 2021, because he would have been appointed — not elected — to the office in the wake of Northam’s resignation.
Aside from Wilder, only one other African American, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, has been elected governor of a U.S. state. Another black governor, David Patterson, was appointed to the office after the resignation of Eliot Spitzer in a 2008 sex scandal.
When Northam, who was then-lieutenant governor, opted to seek the governorship in 2017, Fairfax entered the race to replace him. He defeated Republican Jill Vogel in the general election, receiving 53 percent of the vote compared to 47 percent for Vogel.
Prior to his swearing-in ceremony in January 2018, Fairfax’s father handed him a document of his great-great-great-grandfather Simon Fairfax, who was freed from slavery in 1798 by the 9th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. The document was found in the deed section of the Fairfax County courthouse. In it, Thomas Fairfax, the ninth Lord Fairfax, freed Simon Fairfax from slavery.
If Fairfax replaces Northam, he likely becomes the frontrunner to be the Democratic nominee for governor in 2021. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has already announced plans to run for governor in 2021, though, and has the backing of many prominent Democrats in the state.
After Northam’s bizarre press conference Saturday, in which he denied that he was either of the men pictured in the racist yearbook photo, Fairfax released a statement condemning the picture, stopping short of calling on the governor to resign.
“As we commemorate 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia, it is painful to experience such a searing reminder of the modern legacy of our nation’s original sin,” Fairfax said. “And, as someone whose great-great-great grandfather was enslaved in Virginia, this episode strikes particularly close to home.”
During his 2017 campaign for governor, Northam removed any mention of Fairfax from about a thousand pieces of campaign literature. The fliers, showing photos of Northam and Herring, were produced for canvassers with the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which asked that Fairfax be excluded because it did not endorse him. Fairfax has spoken critically of two proposed natural gas pipelines in the state that the union supports.
Thinking about Justin Fairfax and these stories right now: https://t.co/VsPxklHIQM
— Elise Viebeck (@eliseviebeck) February 1, 2019
As lieutenant governor, Fairfax has served as the president of the state Senate and has left the podium whenever state senators have attempted to honor Confederate leaders Stonewall Jackson or Robert E. Lee.
On the Friday prior to last month’s Martin Luther King holiday, Fairfax stepped off the dais again and let a Republican wield the gavel while Sen. Richard Stuart (R) marked Lee’s 212th birthday with praise for “a great Virginian and a great American.”
“I believe there are certain people in history we should honor that way in the Senate … and I don’t believe that he is one of them,” Fairfax said at the time.
This story has been updated to include Fairfax’s statement on Northam’s press conference.