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Justin Fairfax is the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia and will compete with Republican state Sen. Jill Vogel in the November 7 election.
Though less visible than the state’s acrimonious gubernatorial race between Democratic Lt. Governor Ralph Northam and political consultant Ed Gillespie, Fairfax has been named as an African American politician to watch by The Root. He is joined on the list by political heavyweights like Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Tim Scott and several representatives in the U.S. House.
Unsurprisingly, race has come up as an issue several times during his campaign—Northam recently came under fire for omitting Fairfax from campaign literature in Northern Virginia at the behest of a labor union that declined to endorse him. Fairfax’s supporters also cried foul when his opponent questioned his ability to “talk intelligently” during a candidate forum.
“I can’t speak to what was inside of Jill Vogel’s head, but the optics of a white woman saying that a black man with extraordinary credentials — who last night spoke with substance and great command of the issues — those optics aren’t good,” said Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker.
Later on in the forum, Vogel clarified that she was questioning how informed Fairfax was, not his intelligence, and went on to say that she thinks Fairfax is a really nice guy. “I enjoy actually being on the trail with him,” she added.
Here’s what you need to know about Justin Fairfax:
1. An Ivy League Grad, Fairfax Is a Former Assistant U.S. Attorney and Federal Law Clerk
Fairfax earned an undergraduate degree in public policy from Duke University in 2000, and went on to graduate from the Columbia University School of Law with a juris doctor in 2005.
After graduation, he spent a year clerking for the Honorable Gerald Bruce Lee, who presided over the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. He then worked as a private practice attorney at WilmerHale LLP in Washington D.C. until he was appointed as an assistant U.S. attorney in 2010.
Fairfax left the U.S. Attorney’s office in August 2012 to launch what would ultimately be an unsuccessful campaign for attorney general of Virginia. After the election, he took a position as general counsel and vice president of development at Thompson hospitality corporation, but again left the private sector to get political as the co-chair for U.S. Senator Mark Warner’s 2014 re-election campaign.
In 2015, he re-entered the private sector at Venable LLP, where he currently works as a litigator.
2. He Ran Unsuccessfully for State Attorney General in 2013
In August 2012, Fairfax left private practice to launch a campaign to become attorney general of Virginia. At the time, Fairfax said that voters “want an attorney general with the right legal experience and a record of results in protecting all Virginians.”
Despite polling closely behind Mark Herring, his rival in the Democratic primary, and earning an endorsement from the Washington Post, Fairfax lost to Herring in the primary contest. Election day was marred by technical difficulties at the State Board of Elections and a remarkably low voter turnout.
“We’ve got 2,045 [registered voters in the precinct], and we’re at 71,” a precinct officer told the Washington Post about two hours before polls closed. “That’s pretty sad.”
3. Ralph Northam’s Campaign Was Accused of Accommodating Racism After Fairfax Was Removed From Campaign Literature Distributed in Northern Virginia
Ralph Northam’s campaign recently came under fire for omitting Fairfax from a series of campaign mailers outlining the candidates that will appear on the Democratic ticket in November.
The decision sparked an outcry on social media and among activists. “It reeks of subtle racism, if not a tone deafness about how we are going to win in November,” Quentin James, founder of Collective PAC, a group that supports black candidates running for office, told the Washington Post.
A spokesman for Northam’s campaign said in a statement that the omission was meant to accommodate LIUNA Mid-Atlantic Region Organizing Coalition, a union that had endorsed Northam but not Fairfax and asked for special campaign literature to carry on their own canvasses.
Fairfax “wasn’t supporting us on the issues,” said LIUNA General Counsel Brian Petruska. Fairfax opposes two proposed natural gas pipelines that the union supports.
“Out of over 3 million pieces of literature printed for the campaign, this literature constituted less than roughly 0.5% of the literature printed, and was only for LIUNA to carry on their canvasses,” said Northam spokesman David Turner. “You can be rest assured, voters will know who Justin Fairfax is, what he stands for, and why he is the best choice for Lt. Governor in November.”
Fairfax initially called the move a “mistake” in an interview, adding, “This should not have happened, and it should not happen again, and there needs to be robust investment in making sure that we are communicating with African American voters and we are engaging our base.”
He released a formal statement a few hours later saying that Democrats have “a strong ticket and one that is working well together. One piece of literature does not change that.”
4. If Elected, Fairfax Would Be Virginia’s Second Black Lieutenant Governor and the Nation’s 17th
The nation’s first black lieutenant governor, Oscar James Dunn, was elected in the state of Louisiana in 1868. A student of law who was heavily involved in the post-Civil War suffrage movement, Dunn won election on a joint ticket with Henry Clay Warmoth, but died in office in 1871.
Dunn was one of only 16 black people to ever serve as lieutenant governor in the history of the United States. If elected, Fairfax would not be Virginia’s first minority to serve as a state executive—Douglas Wilder, a former mayor of Richmond and descendent of slaves, won the lieutenant governorship as a Democrat in 1985. Four years later, he went on to win election as governor. He was the first black person to hold statewide office in Virginia and one of only four black people to ever serve as a state’s governor.
Shortly before his inauguration in 1990, a Washington Post correspondent wrote, “Willingly or not, Wilder becomes a symbol of the changing climate of politics in the South and the nation as a whole, the aspirations of American blacks to assume an equal place in society, and the uncertainties that confront any public leader as a new century looms.”
Upon winning his party’s nomination back in the June primary, Fairfax sat down with The Root to discuss his campaign, telling the publication, “The message of resisting the divisive hatred, xenophobia, racism and misogyny out there is what we’re about.”
“I do stand on the shoulders of giants. Doug Wilder and the barriers he broke down, I couldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for [Wilder,] … I definitely keep that a part of my perspective, but I really have always been focused more on the future than history,” added Fairfax.
5. He Lives in Fairfax County (No Relation) With His Wife, Cerina, and Two Kids
Fairfax and his wife, Cerina, celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary in June 2017. Cerina is a dentist with her own practice, Dr. Fairfax & Associates, located in Fairfax, Virginia, where she and her husband live.
A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, her professional biography states that, “[s]he is committed to serving not only her patients, but others as well through participation in community outreach programs, volunteer and sponsorship opportunities, vocational training programs, and contributions to local charities and nonprofits intended to aid individuals and/or organizations helping those in need.”
The couple have two children together: a son, Cameron, and a daughter, Carys.