Virginian-Pilot Editorial Board
LT. GOV. Justin Fairfax earned a place in Virginia history when, in November, he became the second African American to win statewide election.
That distinction was no secret to Fairfax, the 38-year-old former prosecutor from Annandale, and it made his campaign a bit of a balancing act. Though cognizant that his election would be a landmark, Fairfax stressed his qualifications and aspirations, not his demographics, to distinguish himself.
In that way, he followed the path blazed by former Gov. Douglas Wilder, who in 1989 became the first African American elected to statewide office.
“People are far more interested in our ideas than they are in our identity. They want public servants who are talking about them and not about themselves,” Fairfax told The Washington Post in October.
It’s a strategy that worked, as Fairfax stormed to an impressive victory over Republican state Sen. Jill Vogel. Yet there were still several instances in which race played an outsize role in the campaign.
One was during a debate with Vogel, whom Fairfax criticized for her role in advancing the so-called “transvaginal ultrasound” bill in 2012. Vogel said Fairfax “is not informed enough on those issues to talk intelligently about them,” which many observers considered a racial slight, fairly or not.
Another came a few weeks before voters headed to the polls, when a piece of campaign literature promoting the Democratic Party ticket and prepared for distribution by the Laborers’ International Union of North America omitted Fairfax’s name and photo.
Fairfax said the mix-up was misunderstood, and that LUNA asked that Fairfax be left off the mailer because it did not endorse his candidacy. Still, the incident was a bad look for the Democrats on the eve of an election.
And, of course, there was the matter of Confederate statues, which had been a simmering topic of debate for years before violent clashes in Charlottesville brought it to a head in August.
After the first rally in Charlottesville, organized by the so-called “alt-right” in May, Fairfax issued a statement that read, “I believe that symbolism matters, but substance matters even more.”
In each case, Fairfax handled himself with grace and strength, a pattern throughout his relatively short career in public life.
And while he was correct in May that a substantial response to concerns about race is what matters, symbolism still carries a good bit of weight. Especially in Virginia.
And so it was that Fairfax, now serving as lieutenant governor and, in that capacity, presiding over the state Senate, found himself recently making symbolic — and wholly justified — gestures when faced with unfortunate instances of insensitivity.
The first came Jan. 22 when Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Augusta, adjourned the chamber with a speech honoring Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Fairfax excused himself from the dais, choosing to sit on a bench typically occupied by Senate pages.
He did the same a few days later, when Sens. Thomas K. “Tommy” Norment Jr. and Richard Stuart paid tribute to Gen. Robert E. Lee in similar fashion.
“I just wanted to, in a very respectful but very definite way, make it clear that these were not adjournment motions that I felt comfortable presiding over, and I was not going to do it,” he told The Post after the Jackson tribute.
He will be criticized, of course, for not genuflecting at the mention of Virginia’s much-ballyhooed insurrectionists. But it was entirely unnecessary of these senators to twice put Fairfax in that awkward and uncomfortable position.
Fairfax needs no help in his defense. He knows full well how to stand up for himself.
He also knows when sitting makes a more powerful statement — when it is a meaningful symbol of the more diverse, more forward-thinking and more tolerant commonwealth that Virginia must aspire to be.