Terry McAuliffe, the leading candidate in this year’s Democratic primary for Virginia governor, faced a flurry of attacks from his rivals at a debate on Tuesday night as they aimed to diminish his broad support from Black voters. In the most extraordinary broadside, the state’s Black lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, accused Mr. McAuliffe of treating him like George Floyd or Emmett Till after Mr. Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by two women in 2019.
Mr. McAuliffe, a white former governor of the state who has the backing of many of the state’s top Black elected officials, issued a public call that year for Mr. Fairfax to resign.
Mr. Fairfax’s remarks on Tuesday — in which he compared himself to two Black people killed in episodes of white violence — were the most pointed attempt by one of the three Black candidates in the race to draw a racial distinction between them and Mr. McAuliffe, who is aiming to reclaim the office he held from 2014 to 2018.
The accusation came at the end of the debate, the first for the five Virginia Democrats running for governor. Responding to a question asking the candidates to envision the future of law enforcement in Virginia, Mr. Fairfax said theoretical descriptions were unnecessary because he was a living embodiment of the harm 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 a press release came out,” Mr. Fairfax said. “He treated me like George Floyd, he treated me like Emmett Till, no due process, immediately assumed my guilt. I have a son and I have a daughter, and I don’t want my daughter to be assaulted, I don’t want my son to be falsely accused. And this is the real world that we live in. And so we need to speak truth to power and we need to be very clear about how that impacts people’s lives.”
Mr. McAuliffe did not respond to Mr. Fairfax on the debate stage. His spokesman declined to address the remarks.
In February 2019, amid a concurrent scandal involving a medical school yearbook photograph of Gov. Ralph Northam in blackface, two women accused Mr. Fairfax of sexually assaulting them in separate episodes — allegations that Mr. Fairfax has always denied. Mr. Fairfax faced a torrent of calls for his resignation. Weeks later, in a speech on the floor of the Virginia Senate, he compared himself to lynching victims.
Mr. Fairfax was not the only candidate on Tuesday night to try to cleave Black voters from Mr. McAuliffe. The scant public polling of the race has found Mr. McAuliffe holding sizable leads over his four opponents, and no survey has shown him with less than a two-to-one advantage over his closest rival.
Jennifer McClellan, a state senator who is running for governor, accused Mr. McAuliffe of underfunding the state’s parole system, cutting deals with the National Rifle Association during his term as governor and being a late advocate for racial justice.
“Racial justice is about more than criminal justice reform,” said Ms. McClellan, who is Black. “It is embedded in every system we have in government, and I did not need George Floyd’s murder or the Unite the Right rally to teach me that.”
Mr. McAuliffe, during his turns to speak, emphasized his relationships with Mr. Northam and President Biden, two Democrats who both owe their offices to strong relationships with and support from Black voters. He highlighted his move 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 we can see what’s going on.”
“Thank goodness we had all those individuals there who had those cellphones 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, by the debate’s end, sought to define himself as the chief rival to the loquacious former governor.
“There appears to be two sets of rules up here, one where the governor can talk as long as he wants to and do whatever he wants, and one for everybody else,” Mr. Fairfax said. “I think that’s part of the issue, that we do have so many disparities in our society.”