When two women came forward to make credible accusations of sexual misconduct against Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax last February, the once-rising African American political star denied the claims and refused to resign. Many Democrats called on him to quit, while Democrats and Republicans wrangled over what to do, Ultimately, both parties did nothing.
It turns out that someone might wind up paying for Fairfax’s behavior—and that someone happens to be a woman, who is herself a sexual abuse survivor.
Virginia Beach delegate Kelly Convirs Fowler, locked in a tough race with challenger Shannon Kane, has already weathered ads and mailers that claimed she supports “infanticide” and associated her with the violent Salvadoran gang MS-13 (Fowler is of Filipino and Mexican descent). She had seen Kane twist her words about Fairfax in an earlier mailer, falsely claiming she said she was too busy to hear from his accusers, to prove that Fowler, the mother of two girls, is “bad for women.”
But nothing prepared Fowler for what came Monday night: a television ad that claims she has been “silent” on Fairfax’s accusers—even though she called for him to resign over the charges—featuring disturbing and vivid footage from interviews CBS conducted with both women. And again, as in earlier mailers, an out-of-context quote of Fowler saying “we really don’t have time,” supposedly to hear the two accusers, drives the narrative, when Fowler insists she was saying she didn’t have time to talk to the reporter. (It should also be noted that Fowler made the comments in the first days of the Fairfax scandal, before the identity of the first accuser was known, and before the second accuser came forward.)
Shocked and horrified, Fowler conferred with her family and campaign advisers after the ad appeared, and decided to strike back at Kane, and also reveal a long-kept secret: When she was a preteen, she was sexually abused by someone known to her family.
Near tears, she tells me she won’t be the scapegoat for Fairfax’s troubles—especially at the hands of a Virginia Republican Party whose leaders endorsed Donald Trump, who has been credibly accused of sexual abuse and assault by dozens of women, without a peep of concern for his victims.
“Shannon Kane says she’s fighting for survivors, but she’s done nothing,” Fowler tells me. “All she’s doing here is taking advantage of survivors and using them. As a survivor, I’m very disturbed.”
The Virginia Beach incumbent considered coming out with her own story of sexual abuse during the debate over the handling of the Fairfax allegations, but decided she didn’t want to upstage the two female accusers. Even today, Fowler wants to keep the details of her repeated abuse fairly vague, since there are still people alive, locally, who know the story.
She was a young girl, she says, and “I felt guilty.” For a time, she tried to believe her abuser’s insistence that his sexual behavior was “an accident. It was very confusing.” When she realized it wasn’t, after multiple incidences, she did get some family support, and the abuse stopped. But “I was silenced” by people in her community, she says, and Fowler has never stopped “feeling guilty, because abuse continues when women don’t tell.”
Even apart from her just-told personal story, it’s strange to see Fowler made the scapegoat for Fairfax, since she called for his resignation quickly. There was, in fact, a complicated wrangle over how Virginia Democrats should deal with Fairfax, one that went on for months after the allegations became public. The House Democratic Caucus and the Virginia Democratic Party called for him to resign once the second accuser came forward. When he refused, some Democrats investigated impeaching him, but with the legislative session ending at the end of that same month, it was a hard sell.
Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, Fairfax’s accusers, made clear that they wanted to testify under oath, on the record and in public, in a bipartisan process. The Republican House leadership proposed some sort of hearing to do that, but Democrats say that in follow-up discussions they never got a clear outline of how the hearings would be managed, which witnesses would be called (the House lacks subpoena power), and who would conduct the questioning. House Democrats shared with me at least a half-dozen letters to GOP leadership asking for clarity on how the process would be run, which they insist were never answered. At one point, House Democratic leader Eileen Filler-Corn counter-proposed “engaging an independent, third-party entity to conduct a hearing,” to keep it out of the realm of partisan politics, in a letter to Republican colleagues, but she says she never received an answer to that either.
“The Republicans weren’t proposing that hearing in anything resembling good faith,” says Carolyn Fiddler, a longtime Virginia politics activist and observer who is now Daily Kos communications director. Back in February, Fiddler was (and she remains) a huge Fairfax critic who was frustrated that the Democrats didn’t investigate impeachment more fully. But she says the “negotiations” that ensued, between Republican and Democratic leaders, were for show on the part of the GOP.
“If the Republicans wanted a hearing so badly, they have majorities in both chambers—they could have made that happen all by themselves,” Fiddler explains. She thinks their goal was instead to create these anti-Democratic ads to use in the closing days of the campaign. (So far, a similar ad has run in one other district.) “These ads reveal that proposed hearing to be exactly what Democrats sensed it was at the time: a sick political ploy by Republicans who wanted nothing more than to exploit sexual assault victims for their own political gain in the coming elections.”
Kelly Fowler agrees. “At one point, it felt like they [Republicans] were trying to work out an arrangement, and I had a hope that these women would be heard. But it just went away.” She echoes Fiddler when she looks at what the GOP has done with its alleged concern for female sexual assault victims. “They saved this [ad] to the end for a reason.”
Fowler still wonders whether the Democrats could have done more. “But I’m really not sure, being in the minority. Ultimately, the GOP had the majority, and they were the ones who made it so that the women couldn’t speak.”
Virginia political consultants say Fowler is among the most vulnerable incumbents, and this advertising onslaught—Kane reportedly received $100,000 from the state party for final-week advertising, sources say—could make her road harder. On the other hand, Kane’s racist MS-13 flyer resulted in a backlash, even among the media, that most folks believe helped Fowler. At this point, Fowler’s not sure how this ad will play, but she ends our conversation saying at least she’s relieved she’s finally talking about her own history as a sexual abuse survivor.
“I don’t want my daughters”— Fowler is pregnant with her third girl—“to live in this world,” she says, sounding at peace with her decision to be public about her past, and about the ugly present.