The first televised debate among the five Virginia Democrats running to be the party’s gubernatorial nominee should have been more exciting. It featured a Democratic Socialist (Delegate Lee Carter), a popular, well-funded, fairly centrist former governor (Terry McAuliffe), two Black women (liberal state Senator Jennifer McClellan and progressive Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy), and finally, the state’s Black Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, who might have been the front-runner but for two allegations of sexual assault that came out two years ago.
Polling is scarce, but McAuliffe is leading in every survey anyone knows about. His rivals needed to put him back on his heels—and mostly, they did not. Carroll Foy, the progressive favorite (despite Carter’s DSA credentials), did a lot with stories of her rough childhood, helping her grandmother decide “between paying our mortgage, and medication keeping her alive.” The contrast with the wealthy former governor went unspoken but came out clearly. McClellan, with almost two decades in the legislature, touted her many years of experience and called herself “Harry Byrd’s worst nightmare,” a reference to the racist Democratic boss who ran Virginia politics for decades. McAuliffe bragged about having the most Black support in his race against three Black candidates. Carter talked about his gigs as a Lyft driver, to make the case that he’s the only candidate who knows how tough this Covid economy is.
It was nice. It was edifying. Friendly. The five candidates, despite their ideological differences, mostly agreed on the issues. Carroll Foy took a shot at McAuliffe for a deal he made to weaken a concealed carry gun reform bill, but he shot back and said he was proud of the deal—and that McClellan supported him. I’d call that a draw.
Then Fairfax blew it all up. I knew he’d have to do it: The sexual assault allegations are dooming his campaign, and many people believe (without evidence, as far as I know) that McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chair as well as former governor, had something to do with the charges surfacing when they did. Facing a question about the Derek Chauvin trial, Fairfax answered, “The murder of George Floyd was horrific.” But then he put all of his chips on attacking McAuliffe. Citing “a real world example where I was falsely accused in 2019,” he said all of his rivals on the stage had quickly called for him to resign. But he singled out McAuliffe.
“He treated me like George Floyd. He treated me like Emmett Till. No due process.”
I expected the moderators to give McAuliffe a chance to respond, but he didn’t ask for it, and they, for whatever reasons—and some may well be good—just kept the questions rolling after that.
This white person felt, at the time, that the whole gambit would backfire and make McAuliffe more sympathetic. Emmett Till? But Fairfax—or Carroll Foy or McClellan—certainly needs to loosen the former governor’s hold on the Black vote in order to have a prayer in the June 8 primary. I’ve already written that this reminds me of the 2020 presidential primary, with McAuliffe in the Joe Biden role—elder white statesman whose path to victory is led by Black voters, despite there being actual Black candidates in the race. Maybe this desperate move helps?
But I doubt it. To see the privileged Fairfax, who insists he’s innocent of the claims against him, compare himself to men—excuse me, one man, one boy— who were cruelly murdered and not just wrongly accused is yet another reason his political career ran aground. I don’t know who won the debate, but McAuliffe, Carroll Foy, McClellan and Carter came out way ahead on Tuesday night.