On January 13, Justin Fairfax ’05 officially gained a place in Virginia history when he became the state’s lieutenant governor. At 38, he now is one of the youngest lieutenant governors in the country, and only the second African-American to hold statewide office in Virginia.
For Fairfax, the election also marked what he called an “incredible comeback,” one that he credited to a supportive family and superb education.
“My mom was able to put all four [of her children] through college and two of us through law school,” said Fairfax, a litigator at Venable LLP who never before held elected office. “I’m deeply grateful to everyone who made that possible.”
After his parents divorced in the mid-1980s, the Pittsburgh-born Fairfax, his three siblings, and his mother struggled financially. The family moved into his grandparents’ house in a rough Washington, D.C. neighborhood, plagued by an epidemic of drugs and crime. “I was losing friends to gun violence, to the criminal justice system,” he said.
Fairfax pointed to his strong faith and family for helping him and his siblings succeed. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had faith and hope and optimism,” he said. (One brother is vice dean of George Washington University’s School of Law; another is an engineer, and his sister is a nurse.) He also is quick to cite his top-notch education, including at Columbia Law. “The education at Columbia was so great and so broad and comes into play in everyday life,” said Fairfax.
After graduating from Duke University in 2000, Fairfax worked on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, where his duties included briefing Gore’s wife Tipper on policy. He then served as an aide to then-U.S. Senator John Edwards. In 2002, he enrolled at Columbia Law, due in large part to an attractive financial aid package. “I was only able to go to Columbia because of the financial assistance that the university gave to make it possible,” said Fairfax, a recipient of the Lawrence Wien Scholarship.
While a student, Fairfax served as an editor at the Columbia Law Review and was active in the Black Students Law Association. Throughout, he pursued his passion for public service. He took a course with Jack Greenberg ’48, the legendary civil rights lawyer and beloved Law School professor. Fairfax called the experience “career- and life-changing.”
During one summer, he also worked on the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign, traveling with vice presidential candidate John Edwards as the all-purpose “body man.”
After graduation, Fairfax clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee in the Eastern District of Virginia. He then worked in the Washington, D.C. office of WilmerHale before returning to the Eastern District to serve as an assistant U.S. attorney. In 2013, he made his first bid for elected office, running for the Democratic nomination for attorney general in Virginia; he surprised the political establishment by almost beating a well-known state senator, Mark Herring.
Boosted by a network of supporters, including friends from his Columbia days, Fairfax decided to make another bid for public office, this time for lieutenant governor. “It’s critical to have that kind of support, including the financial backing of a network,” said Fairfax, who is married with two young children. His wife, Cerina, is a dentist in Northern Virginia.
Fairfax won the lieutenant governor’s race by 5.5 points, stressing a message of economic security and prosperity to "all Virginians.” The position is part-time. Fairfax recently announced he would step down from his position at Venable. “Over the next several months, my family and I will discuss various career offers and opportunities, however, I do not plan to take on other responsibilities prior to the conclusion of the 2018 General Assembly regular session,” Fairfax said in the statement.
A few weeks before he took office, Fairfax said he was focused on his “spiritual wealth” — all of the opportunities he has received, due to his network, education, and upbringing. Once he assumes office, he said, he hopes to repay those “spiritual debts” by creating policies that will enable others to succeed, as he has. “I want to make that story possible for other people,” he said.
Published January 16, 2018