Justin Fairfax is an Ivy League-educated lawyer descended from slaves, who as lieutenant governor of Virginia has been best known for sitting out tributes to Confederate leaders in the historic Capitol in Richmond.
He could now become the commonwealth’s 74th governor, if fellow Democrat Ralph Northam resigns over a racist photo included in his medical school yearbook in 1984.
The photo, which shows one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb, spurred calls from national and state Democrats, black leaders and Republicans for Northam to step down. Northam apologized for the photo after it surfaced on social media Friday, but Saturday he said that he did not believe he was in the photo and thought it had been included on his yearbook page by accident.
As virtually the entire Democratic establishment called for the governor’s resignation, Fairfax, 39, called the photo “a searing reminder of the modern legacy of our nation’s original sin” but stopped short of saying Northam should step down.
“At this critical and defining moment in the history of Virginia and this nation, we need leaders with the ability to unite and help us rise to the better angels of our nature,” Fairfax said in a statement. “Now more than ever, we must make decisions in the best interests of the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
In a video posted on Twitter Feb. 1, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued an apology after his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing a racist photo emerged. (Official Twitter account for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam)
Fairfax is serving his first term in public office. He was elected as Northam’s deputy in the 2017 blue wave in which Democrats won all three statewide offices and picked up 15 seats in the House of Delegates.
He would be the second African American governor of Virginia, following L. Douglas Wilder, who held the office from 1990 to 1994. Only two other African Americans have been governors in modern U.S. history.
Fairfax grew up in his grandparents’ home in a middle-class area of Northeast Washington, where he moved with his mother, a pharmacist, and his three older siblings after his parents divorced.
He attended DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., Duke University and Columbia Law School and came to Virginia in 2005 to clerk for U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee.
Fairfax has mostly worked in the private sector except for several years as a federal prosecutor in Northern Virginia. After being elected lieutenant governor, which is a part-time position, he was hired by the white-shoe firm Morrison and Foerster.
He lives in Annandale with his wife and their two children.
Fairfax first sought public office in 2013, running for attorney general as a political outsider. After nearly upsetting establishment favorite — and current attorney general — Mark R. Herring in the Democratic primary, he spent the next few years barnstorming Virginia, helping candidates for local office and building his stature within the state Democratic Party.
Dick Howard, a law professor at the University of Virginia and expert on the state constitution, told The Washington Post on Friday that 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 if Northam resigned.
Howard said he thought the state constitution calls for the governor to appoint a new lieutenant governor if there is a vacancy, until a special election can be held in the next November general election. That would mean Fairfax would appoint a lieutenant governor to serve through the rest of the year. That person could be a placeholder or could run in November to serve out the remainder of Fairfax’s term.
During the 2017 campaign, Fairfax was a charismatic foil to Northam and Herring, both of whom are more low-key. He was embraced by progressives for stances including his skepticism about natural-gas pipeline projects.
The Laborers’ International Union of North America declined to endorse Fairfax because of his stance on pipelines, and Fairfax publicly criticized Northam during the campaign for supplying fliers to union canvassers with Fairfax’s name omitted.
The apparent snub of Fairfax angered some African American leaders, who saw it as an example of the Democratic Party taking the black vote for granted. Fairfax warned that the party needed to do more to energize black voters.
At his inauguration last year, Fairfax had in the pocket of his coat a copy of the manumission document that freed his great-great-great-grandfather Simon Fairfax from slavery. His father presented him with the document just before he was sworn in, and Fairfax continued to keep it in his office on Capitol Square.
He had it with him when he declined to preside over the state Senate during its annual tribute to Confederate Gens. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in 2018 and Robert E. Lee this year.
“I was just reminding myself of that journey,” Fairfax said in 2018, describing his thoughts as he sat out the tribute, the document resting in his pocket. “I was reminding myself what our ancestors had to go through to get to a point like we’re having now. . . . We can make progress if we keep our eyes on the future.”
Later that legislative session, Fairfax cast the tie-breaking vote to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low-income adults, a key Democratic campaign promise.
Fairfax would be the fourth African American to serve as state governor in modern times. In addition to Wilder, Deval Patrick was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2006 and reelected in 2010. David Paterson, who was elected lieutenant governor of New York in 2006, served nearly three years as governor after Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal in 2008.
Fairfax raised his national profile by stumping for Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Florida’s Andrew Gillum in the unsuccessful campaigns by the two Democrats, both of whom are black, for their states’ governorships last year.
He led a group that worked to elect Democratic lieutenant governors and championed fellow young African Americans elected to that post in Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.