Justin Fairfax’s path to career success wasn’t always an easy one, but help from family and mentors opened new doors for him. Now he’s working to provide others with the same chances he had.
Last week, Fairfax—who graduated from Duke in 2000 with a B.A. in public policy studies and French—won the race for lieutenant governor of Virginia, becoming only the second African American to hold the position. He defeated Republican Jill Holtzman Vogel, a state senator and former chief counsel for the Republican National Committee.
“The reason we ran is because I’ve always had a deep passion for public service, for creating opportunities for people in much of the way people created opportunities for me,” he said.
Fairfax’s campaign focused on increasing economic opportunities and access to high-quality, affordable health care. He is also passionate about making college more equitable by allowing people to refinance their student loan debt and reforming the criminal justice system by dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.
He noted that he was raised primarily by his mom along with his maternal grandparents who let his family to move into their home when times were hard. This allowed his mom to save up money working as a pharmacist and buy the house across the street from his grandparents.
“With the help of so many people, she sent all four of her kids to college and two to law school,” Fairfax said. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had faith and hope and optimism.”
This instilled in him the importance of lifting up other people and fostering positivity.
“When you get spiritual wealth in your life, you then have a spiritual debt that you must repay, and you have to go out and fight and make that story possible for more people,” he said. “That’s why I ran.”
The job of lieutenant governor is a part-time position with the main responsibility of presiding over the state senate and breaking ties when necessary—a likely situation given the senate's current breakdown of 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats. The role also involves sitting on boards and commissions that deal with policy issues like economic development, climate change and higher education.
Fairfax explained that he has always had a passion for public service, but that this became solidified when he came to Duke on the Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholarship and began taking public policy classes.
At Duke, he served as president of the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha and as a young trustee for the Board of Trustees. He’s also currently a member of the Sanford School Board of Visitors.
Bruce Jentleson, professor of public policy and political science, said that Fairfax impressed him even as an undergraduate. The two developed a friendship over their interest in politics, and Jentleson helped Fairfax secure an internship on the Al Gore campaign in Nashville. They stayed in touch as Fairfax’s career progressed.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
“I’m just very excited for him,” Jentleson said. “He has things we really want in young political leaders.”
Fairfax noted that he enjoyed his work on the Gore campaign, where he served as Tipper Gore’s briefing coordinator—he loved “everything but the ending,” he said.
After graduating from Columbia Law School in 2005, Fairfax worked as assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. As a federal prosecutor, he was deputy of the Major Crimes and Narcotics unit and a member of the Human Trafficking Task Force.
In 2013, he made a run for state attorney general but lost by less than two votes per precinct statewide. He noted that this experience showed him the importance of resilience and perseverance.
“If things are not successful, some people have the tendency to walk away, but we took opposite lesson and chose to work harder,” he said.
When he decided to run for lieutenant governor, Fairfax focused on meeting as many people as he could, traveling to all corners of Virginia to reach voters in their own communities. He noted that people responded very positively to his campaign, which acquired supporters across party lines.
His campaign gained momentum after the Democratic primary in June when he beat Susan Platt and Gene Rossi with of the vote. His win last Tuesday was a historic moment—only the second time an African American has been elected to statewide office in Virginia. The last African American lieutenant governor for the state was elected in 1985.
Fairfax will have to balance his new responsibilities with his current job as a litigator at a law firm in northern Virginia where he lives with his wife, also a Duke grad, and their two kids.
There’s also the current state of politics to contend with, both nationally and locally. Despite widespread criticisms of the present affairs in Washington, Fairfax explained that he is an eternal optimist, especially after last week’s election in Virginia.
“Virginia proved that we can be a bright light in political darkness,” he said. “I believe that will have positive reverberations throughout the country.”
He added that he hopes the state will be the match that sparks the wildfire of progressive change across the country.
"People are energized, they’re hopeful, they want to see a change in our politics, they want to see us go to a much brighter place in our nation,” he said.
Fairfax noted his appreciation for the support he’s received from the Duke community, explaining that his education showed him how to take his knowledge base into the real world to create positive change. Terry Sanford, former president of Duke and a North Carolina governor, served as one of his political inspirations.
Jentleson noted that Fairfax is dedicated to serving people through his position and that he’ll make Duke proud.
“He has a genuine commitment to what it means to be an elected official in an age where people doubt that,” Jentleson said. “It’s that authenticity that comes through when you meet him, he’s very personable.”
Fairfax encouraged students interested in law or politics to follow their passions and not be discouraged by anyone, including themselves.
He also noted the importance of dreaming big and acting boldly while also being ethical and responsible.
“I can’t think of a higher calling than helping someone else,” Fairfax said. “We need the next generation of leaders to stand up and have their voices be heard to create positive change. Duke grads are incredibly well-positioned to do just that.”