Vanessa Tyson Accuses Justin Fairfax of Sexual Assault

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Vanessa Tyson Accuses Justin Fairfax of Sexual Assault

By Jim Owen

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax may not ascend to the state’s top office after all, due to a sexual assault accusation by Vanessa Tyson.

Before the allegation surfaced, Fairfax appeared to be on the verge of replacing his fellow Democrat, Ralph Northam, in the governor’s mansion. Northam is under fire for having worn blackface more than three decades ago. Democrats, as well as Republicans, are demanding his resignation. Fairfax is now also fighting for his political life. He could face criminal charges, as well, though time is running out for prosecutors to pursue a case because of Virginia’s 15-year statute of limitations for sexual assault.

If Northam and Fairfax are forced to step down, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring will be in a position to become governor. However, Herring is mired in his own controversy. He has admitted that, like Northam, he once used black shoe polish to impersonate an African-American celebrity. The next official in the gubernatorial line of succession is a Republican, House Speaker Kirk Cox.

Tyson Tells Her Story

The initial report concerning the alleged assault came in the form of a post on social media by a Richmond-based anti-war activist, who said Tyson approved of him making the revelation.

According to Tyson, her encounter with Fairfax took place during the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. She admitted that she agreed to walk with the future politician to his hotel room to pick up some documents, but said she was surprised when he kissed her as they arrived. Tyson conceded that she returned the embrace, but claimed she did not consent to what happened next. She said Fairfax pushed her head down to his midsection, put his penis in her mouth and forced her to perform oral sex.

Tyson told authorities that she was “shocked and terrified,” crying and struggling to breathe. She said she stayed away from Fairfax for the remainder of the convention and has not had a conversation with him since then. Tyson explained that she did not report the alleged crime for the same reasons many victims keep their experiences secret: shame and embarrassment.

At the time of the convention, Fairfax was a 25-year-old supporter of Sen. John Edwards. The North Carolina lawmaker was at the event to accept his party’s nomination for vice president, as part of a ticket with John Kerry that lost the general election later that year to incumbent President George W. Bush. Tyson has served on three presidential campaigns and two U.S. Senate races.

Law-enforcement officials in Massachusetts have indicated they are willing to investigate the matter. A Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office spokesman told reporters it would not be the first time the agency has pursued charges of sexual assault dating back more than 10 years.

Tyson’s lawyer is Debra Katz, the same attorney who represented Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation process. Professor Christine Blasey Ford and two other women accused the judge of sexual misconduct, but could not furnish proof that the alleged incident happened. It did not prevent the Senate from placing him on the nation’s highest court.

How Credible is the Accuser?

Tyson holds an undergraduate degree from Princeton University and a doctorate from the University of Chicago. After the alleged sexual assault by Fairfax, she joined the teaching faculty at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. That lead to a position as a professor of politics, African-American studies, women’s issues, and environmental policy politics at Scripps College in southern California. 

Tyson is a long-time advocate of sexual assault victims, having volunteered at a rape crisis center. The Washington Examiner noted that she was one of the founders of the Survivor Speakers Bureau at the Rape Crisis Center near Boston, and worked for the organization for three years.

At Stanford, Tyson has been researching the political aspects of sexual violence. Three years ago, she wrote a book titled “Twists of Fate: Multiracial Coalitions and Minority Representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.” The Mercury News pointed out that the professor was on a list of speakers who were to appear at a Feb. 12 conference at Stanford called “Betrayal and Courage in the Age of #MeToo.”

Tyson denied there was any political motivation for her allegation. In a written statement, she described herself as a “proud Democrat” who was speaking out to defend herself from Fairfax’s “falsehoods and aspersions” of her character. Tyson said she told friends about her experience with Fairfax soon after it happened.

Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor in Oregon who is also a Stanford University fellow, confirmed the claim in an interview with the Bay Area News Group. Freyd acknowledged that she could not remember exactly when Tyson talked about the incident. She said it was not unusual to hear such a story because so many women are victims of sexual assault. Freyd called Tyson a “super smart” person with “integrity, courage and authenticity.”

Second Accuser Comes Forward

As the lieutenant governor struggled to maintain his innocence, another woman said he raped her in 2000. Fairfax and the accuser, Meredith Watson, were students at Duke University when the crime allegedly happened at a fraternity house. The campus law-enforcement agency was unable to produce any reports corroborating the allegation, spokesman Will Glenn told USA Today.

One of Watson’s neighbors at the time, Kaneedreck Adams, said in a Washington Post interview that Watson told him about the incident shortly after it supposedly occurred. Adams remembered students finding Fairfax “charming” and calling him “Sunshine” due to his pleasant demeanor. According to the Post, Watson shared her story on Facebook; and sent an email to one of her friends, Milagros Joye Brown, in 2016 detailing the encounter with Fairfax.

Watson’s lawyer is Nancy Erika Smith, who defended Gretchen Carlson when the former Fox News anchor leveled sexual harassment charges at network chief Roger Ailes, who has since died. Smith, a partner in the Smith Mullin firm who specializes in civil rights cases, said Watson wants Fairfax to resign. She stressed that her client was not interested in a financial settlement, becoming a “media personality” or revisiting the “trauma” she experienced.

Fairfax Refutes the Charges

The lieutenant governor insists he has never raped or assaulted anyone, and continues to resist demands for his resignation. Fairfax asked for “due process” and called for an investigation, which he predicted would “clear my good name.” He admitted he had a sexual liaison with Tyson, but claimed it was consensual. He called the second accusation “defamatory” and “false,” noting that he passed two background checks by the FBI while running for office.

In a news release from his office, the lieutenant governor responded to Tyson’s statement that she contacted the Washington Post last year to offer her account of the 2004 incident. Fairfax’s staff argued that the story was obviously a “false claim,” since the newspaper declined to cover it. The release contained a threat to sue anyone who accuses the lieutenant governor of sexual assault.

Since Fairfax is black, the accusations may be racist attacks, according to some of his defenders. A number of Republicans have called the news media hypocritical for treating the lieutenant governor more kindly than conservatives accused of sexual wrongdoing. They cited reporters’ outrage over allegations against President Trump, former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and other Republicans.

The 40-year-old Fairfax had been a rising star in his party and state. When he won the race for lieutenant governor in 2017, he became just the second African-American to hold statewide office in Virginia. The first was former Gov. Douglas Wilder.

Following his graduation from a Catholic high school in Maryland, where he was the senior class president, Fairfax earned a degree in public policy from Duke University in 2000. Later that year, he worked for Tipper Gore, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Fairfax also served as a staff member in Sen. John Edwards’ office in Washington, D.C.

Democrats Call for Resignation

Many prominent members of Fairfax’s party have joined the chorus of voices demanding that the official step down. Among them is Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic governor of Virginia who is considering a presidential bid in 2020.

The Democratic Party of Virginia wrote that Fairfax “must resign” because he has lost the organization’s “confidence” and “support.” The party’s statement described the allegations against the lieutenant governor as “credible,” and proclaimed that Fairfax cannot continue to effectively do his job.

The Virginia Legislative Caucus and it’s Legislative Black Caucus, as well as Democratic leaders in the state’s House and Senate, have urged Fairfax to leave office. Tim Kaine, the Virginia senator who was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2016, made the same demand. Six of the seven Democrats representing the state in the U.S. House also have done so.

Democratic legislator Patrick Hope warned that the lieutenant governor could become the subject of impeachment proceedings if he digs in his heels and refuses to quit. Watson’s lawyer told reporters that the woman would consent to testify at an impeachment hearing.

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