Terry McAuliffe, this year’s leading Democratic primary contender for governor of Virginia, faced a wave of attacks from rivals during a debate Tuesday night as they aimed to diminish his broad voter support black. In the most extraordinary part, the state’s black lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, accused Mr. McAuliffe of treating him like George Floyd or Emmett Till after Mr. Fairfax was charged with sexual assault by two women in 2019.
Mr McAuliffe, a former white state governor who has the backing of many senior black officials in the state, made a public appeal that year for Mr Fairfax to resign.
Mr Fairfax’s remarks on Tuesday – in which he compared himself to two blacks killed in episodes of white violence – were the sharpest attempt by one of three black candidates in the race to draw a racial distinction between them and Mr. McAuliffe, who aims to return to the post he held from 2014 to 2018.
The charge came at the end of the debate, the first for the five Virginia Democrats vying for governor. Responding to a question asking candidates to consider the future of law enforcement in Virginia, Mr Fairfax said theoretical descriptions were not necessary because he was a living embodiment of the prejudice that false accusations and a rush to judgment can produce.
“Everyone here on this stage called for my immediate resignation, including Terry McAuliffe three minutes after issuing a press release,” Mr. Fairfax said. “He treated me like George Floyd, he treated me like Emmett Till, without due process, immediately took responsibility for my guilt. I have a son and a daughter, and I don’t want my daughter to be assaulted, I don’t want my son to be falsely accused. And that’s the real world we live in. So we need to speak the truth to power and we need to be very clear about the impact this has on people’s lives.
Mr. McAuliffe did not respond to Mr. Fairfax at the debate stage. His spokesperson declined to respond to these remarks.
In February 2019, amid a concomitant scandal involving a photograph of the black-faced Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook, two women accused Mr Fairfax of sexually assaulting them in separate episodes – allegations which Mr. Fairfax has always denied. Mr. Fairfax faced a torrent of calls for his resignation. Weeks later, in a speech to the Virginia Senate, he compared himself to lynching victims.
Mr. Fairfax was not the only candidate Tuesday night trying to separate black voters from Mr. McAuliffe. The race’s weak public poll found that Mr McAuliffe held a significant lead over his four opponents, and no survey showed him with less than a two-to-one advantage over his closest rival.
Jennifer McClellan, a state senator running for governor, accused Mr McAuliffe of underfunding the state’s parole system, making deals with the National Rifle Association during his tenure as governor and d ” to be a late advocate of racial justice.
“Racial justice is about more than criminal justice reform,” said Ms. McClellan, who is black. “It’s built into every system we have in government, and I didn’t need the George Floyd murder or the Unite the Right rally to teach me that.
Mr McAuliffe, on his turn, highlighted his relationship with Mr Northam and President Biden, two Democrats who both owe their posts to strong ties and the support of black voters. He highlighted his decision to restore the voting rights of 206,000 felons in the state and said every police officer in the state should wear a body camera “so that we can see what’s going on.”
“Thank goodness we had all these individuals there who had these cell phones when George Floyd was murdered,” he said.
Mr. McAuliffe barely mentioned his rivals during the debate except to remind the audience that Ms. McClellan was a frequent partner of his when he was governor. But Mr Fairfax, at the end of the debate, sought to define himself as the main rival of the chatty former governor.
“There seem to be two sets of rules here, one where the governor can talk for as long as he wants and do whatever he wants, and the other for everyone,” Mr. Fairfax said. “I think that’s part of the problem, that we have so many disparities in our society.”