Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. On June 8th, Terry McAuliffe won the democratic primary for Virginia's open gubernatorial seat. In a distant fifth place with less than 4% of the vote was Justin Fairfax, the state's current Lieutenant Governor. It's a stark turnaround of electoral outcomes for Fairfax. Just four years ago when he ran for Lieutenant Governor, Fairfax won the endorsement of The Washington Post who described him as, "A bright, competent, well-versed former federal prosecutor turned corporate attorney."
Indeed, in 2019, Fairfax nearly ascended to the top spot in the Commonwealth. When Governor Ralph Northam became embroiled in racial scandal after his 1984 medical school yearbook photo was unearthed, showing Northam dressed either in blackface or as a member of the KKK. Northam said he could not remember which of the two races costumes he'd worn that night. In language similar to what we heard this week as party leaders call for Cuomo to step down, Democrats demanded Northam's resignation. This is what it sounded like in February 2019.
Democrat: He's lost the authority to govern. He has to resign. It’s in the best interest of the Commonwealth, it's in the best interest of the party.
Democrat: The good news is though, is that there is a zero-tolerance and people do understand, and he needs to resign immediately to stop the pain in Virginia, and frankly around the nation.
Democrat: The Governor of Virginia should resign. It's completely unacceptable. I'm sure he's lost the confidence of the people of Virginia and I've been very clear.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As pressure mounted, it seemed that Northam was out and that he would be replaced by the young African-American Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax. It wasn't that context when the nation met someone I have known for decades.
Participant: Vanessa Tyson is her name. She says that Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax assaulted her in 2004. Now he categorically denies these allegations.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Vanessa Tyson is a professor of political science at Scripps College in Southern California. I first met Vanessa more than 20 years ago. Having graduated from Princeton University with an award-winning senior thesis, she came to the University of Chicago to earn a PhD. in political science. I just began working as an assistant professor in the department at UChicago.
Vanessa's keen intellect, generosity of spirit, and deep commitment to racial and gender justice were readily apparent. This week, she sat down with me here on The Takeaway to discuss the news about Governor Andrew Cuomo, and to reflect of her own very public journey over the past several years. I asked how she felt when she first learned about the New York Attorney General's report detailing Governor Cuomo's pattern of sexually harassing women with whom he worked.
Vanessa Tyson: I wish I could say I was surprised, but the reality is that I'm not. The abuse of power tends to be rampant in our society, particularly political power, but we see abuses across every industry, within families, within communities, and so on. No, I'm not surprised.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I asked her to remember back to 2019 when she first learned about the racist photo scandal that threatened to unseat Virginia's Governor.
Vanessa Tyson: Some of my friends in Virginia had told me that it was very likely that Governor Ralph Northam was going to step down, and that my rapist was going to get a promotion. I remember I was actually at a conference and I was in a hotel room, and it was a Saturday morning and I was crying in the shower, just sobbing in the shower because it seemed so unfair. I had tried to come forward before Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax was sworn in, but that didn't stop anything. Now it looked like he was going to become governor and I was just horrified.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Tyson's distress about the possibility of Fairfax's ascendance was heightened because she had disclosed the alleged assault before 2019, first to close friends, and later in 2017 to The Washington Post.
Vanessa Tyson: What's interesting is that I actually tried to come forward in 2017 and this is fairly well-documented in December of 2017, before Justin Fairfax became Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, but had already been elected. I spoke with The Washington Post on multiple, multiple occasions about what had happened between him and myself in a hotel room, in Boston during the Democratic Convention Party Convention, the DNC of 2004. I did my best to explain to them what happened. For three and a half months we went back and forth and then The Washington Post decided to can the storage for lack of a better term.
Melissa Harris-Perry: According to The Washington Post, "The post did not run a story at the time because it could not corroborate Tyson's account or find similar complaints of sexual misconduct." This time, in 2019, there was another account of Fairfax as an abuser, Meredith Watson, a classmate of Mr. Fairfax, publicly alleged that the Lieutenant Governor sexually assaulted her in 2000. When they were both college students at Duke University, Watson told her story to Gayle King on CBS this morning.
Meredith Watson: He did things that you shouldn't do to someone without their permission. I tried several times to get up and leave and was pushed back down.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Lieutenant Governor Fairfax categorically denied the allegations made by Tyson and Watson. Both women asked the Virginia State legislature to hold hearings to investigate the claims. Democrats who controlled Virginia's General Assembly declined repeatedly. Justin Fairfax is still the state's Lieutenant Governor. Ralph Northam remains its governor.
I wasn't sure whether I'd be more angry with Cuomo's actions or with the Democratic Party. Because even though they've been swift to call for his resignation, I remember Virginia Democrats were never willing to hold legislative hearings to investigate the claims that you and Meredith made about being sexually assaulted by Fairfax. Are you angry or am I just mad on your behalf?
Vanessa Tyson: I'm disappointed but I've been following politics since I was at least three years old. The reality is I've had a lifelong of disappointment. What I would say is that politicians, regardless of whatever party they belong to seek power and seek to maintain power. When the Democratic Legislators of Virginia opted not to engage in hearings, opted not to allow me and other women who had suffered abuse at the hands of Justin Fairfax, it showed where their priorities were and it was extremely disappointing. It's disappointing now. Again, I'm not surprised. I wish I were.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to sit with that for a minute. You're a political science professor. You were a candidate for office. You've been, as you point out since you were a very young child, engaged in American democracy and elections. Yet what you say in responses, therefore, you're used to a lifetime of disappointment. What does that say when women and maybe particularly Black women who form the core structure of the Democratic Party see engaging in our democracy as setting ourselves up for a lifetime of disregard of our actual experiences?
Vanessa Tyson: Well, I think if I marinated in that one for too long, I would be deeply, deeply depressed. Instead, I try to focus on what I can do to help because no matter what I've been through, there's always someone else who has had it worse. There's always going to be more women who have been victims of abuse, more women and men who've been victims of various forms of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, including sexual harassment in the workplace.
What I think about and what I try to focus on, and I think this has been a common trend amongst African-American women is that we have a bunch of people that we need to help, it's not just about us, we are connected, there is sisterhood. In that sisterhood, it means that we don't necessarily always stand for ourselves, it's that we're standing for all of us. I think about the Democratic Party and at times, I certainly believe that the Democratic Party takes Black women for granted. I think that's a rather common phenomenon.
What I will say, however, is that, as a Black woman, I am not going to let my fellow sisters down, I am not going to let all of the Black women and men who have been abused throughout their lifetimes in whatever way, I'm not going to allow them to be let down. Despite the shortcomings, if you will, of the Democratic Party, as an institution, I think it's important that I, as an individual, stay involved and engaged in the Democratic Party, but also, make sure that I stay true and authentic to who I am, and stay true to the people who have been through so much pain, and so much exploitation, so that they know that they're not alone.
I don't see it as a choice as much as I see my activism and advocacy and even my willingness to come forward under rather terrifying circumstances, as a means to set an example and to try to help others know that they're not alone.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I cannot help but to think about the fact that Joe Biden, as the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the US Senate, also did not allow all of the women who had something to say about Clarence Thomas, he did not allow them to speak, that it took him decades, to even acknowledge publicly and to apologize to Anita Hill and that in this moment when I hear him as president call on Andrew Cuomo to resign, I got to say, I keep wondering if anyone cares, when Black women are the ones who are assaulted and abused or if our political system is simply willing to take us as collateral damage.
Vanessa Tyson: What I would say is that Black women throughout the history of this country have always been collateral. I would add to that, Black children and Black men. As a consequence, what happens is that we're put in this weird situation of trying to survive amid this palpable oppression.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help us to think about this moment with Governor Cuomo. Are there things that are not on the agenda in our public conversation right now that need to be?
Vanessa Tyson: It seems like we're only recently talking about systemic racism. It's coming up and of course, there's plenty of backlash, and so on and so forth but what I want to think about is systemic abuse, and how powerful people either not only abuse others, and use their power as a means to abuse others, use their power as a means to further frighten and intimidate those that they've abused, which I've personally been the recipient of.
I also want to think about how our systems and structures allow for abuse to continue and perpetuate, and really, what does it take for institutions to have the actual courage to reflect upon how they contribute to abuse that very much shapes and hurts members of our society.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Vanessa Tyson is Associate Professor of politics at Scripps College in Southern California. Vanessa, thank you for joining us.
Vanessa Tyson: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've reached out to lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax's office for comment but have yet to hear back, if we do get a response will be posted at thetakeaway.org.
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