Democratic megadonor backs out of fundraising gala, citing party’s decision to let LG Justin Fairfax speak

By: - February 14, 2020 1:15 pm
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides over the Senate on the opening day of the 2020 session of the General Assembly.

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides over the Senate on the opening day of the 2020 session of the General Assembly. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A top donor to Virginia Democrats has pulled his group’s sponsorship of the Democratic Party of Virginia’s annual fundraising gala, saying party officials had told him they will allow Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax to speak despite the allegations of sexual assault leveled against him last year.

In a statement Friday, Michael Bills, a Charlottesville investor who donated almost $1.5 million to Democratic committees last year, said he was withdrawing a “top-tier” gala sponsorship by Clean Virginia, the energy reform group whose board he chairs. Clean Virginia had agreed to be a $10,000 sponsor for the Democrats’ Blue Commonwealth Gala, which will take place Saturday night at Main Street Station in downtown Richmond. The group had not yet given the party a check, so there’s no demand for a refund.

Bills noted that he had joined Democrats in calling for Fairfax’s resignation last year after two women publicly accused him of sexual assault.

“In the year since, he has used his position of power to further attack his accusers,” Bills said. “I remain resolute in my conviction that Fairfax needs to resign. Particularly coupled with the lack of hearings in the House of Delegates into the allegations against him, I am gravely concerned that granting Fairfax the honor of speaking at the gala sends an exculpatory message I do not believe is merited and in which Clean Virginia will have no part.”

Michael Bills, a multi-millionaire investor from Charlottesville, was the largest individual campaign donor in last year’s General Assembly races. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

DPVA Chairwoman Susan Swecker stood by the decision.

“We took this decision seriously and spoke with party leaders at every level to reach a decision,” Swecker said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Fairfax would not comment.

Last year, the party denied Fairfax a table at the gala, prompting the lieutenant governor to accuse the party of rushing to judgment against someone who had not been proven guilty.

After winning General Assembly majorities in November’s elections, many Democrats appear to have moved on from the trio of scandals that thrust the party into chaos one year ago. But Friday’s move by Clean Virginia suggests some Democratic supporters aren’t willing to turn the page on the Fairfax episode just yet.

The allegations against Fairfax emerged about a year ago, shortly after Gov. Ralph Northam’s political career was thrust into peril by the scandal over a racist photo printed on his medical school yearbook page that showed one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb. Had Northam resigned, Fairfax would have become governor and carried out the rest of Northam’s term. Around the same time, Attorney General Mark Herring revealed he wore blackface in college.

Vanessa Tyson, a California university professor, said Fairfax sexually assaulted her in a Boston hotel room during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Meredith Watson, a Maryland resident who went to Duke University with Fairfax, claims Fairfax raped her in 2000 at a Duke fraternity house.

Fairfax has adamantly denied the accusations, insisting both encounters were consensual. With no law enforcement or General Assembly investigations into either allegation, Fairfax has attempted to promote his side of the story in court.

In September, he filed a $400 million defamation suit against CBS News, claiming the network failed to fully vet the allegations before airing emotional interviews with accusers Tyson and Watson. In response, the network called Fairfax’s suit a ploy to “attack” and “disparage” his accusers.

A federal judge threw out Fairfax’s lawsuit this week, a decision Fairfax said he would appeal.

House Republicans said they were willing to hold legislative hearings on the Fairfax allegations last year. House Democrats resisted the move, saying the Republican majority was only interested in a partisan show trial. At the time, Democrats said they were open to some sort of probe and floated the possibility of hiring a third-party investigator to look into the allegations.

Now that Democrats control the House, there has been no public discussion about investigating the matter.

Jake Rubenstein, a spokesman for House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, would not comment.

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, tweeted that Bills’ statement “smacks of racism.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.