RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is launching a run for governor despite facing two high-profile allegations of sexual assault he has strenuously denied.

Fairfax is set to hold campaign kickoff events this weekend, joining a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls looking for their party’s nomination to run for governor in 2021.

The lieutenant governor position is a traditional launch pad for gubernatorial bids, and Fairfax would normally be considered a strong candidate. But unsettled allegations of sexual assault, made by two women last year when Virginia politics was at the center of the nation’s attention, will complicate his ability to raise money and build support.

Fairfax said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday he’s the victim of unfounded political smears and is undeterred by the challenges in running for governor.

“The voters are incredibly smart. They see through this kind of destructive politically motivated kind of politics,” Fairfax said. “And they are ready to move to higher ground.”

He said his campaign will focus on his support for “justice, fairness and opportunity” for all Virginians, and he plans to highlight his support for Medicaid expansion, police reform and increased education spending.

Fairfax, 41, is a former federal prosecutor who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2013 before winning the lieutenant governor’s race in 2017.

Last February, Fairfax briefly seemed poised to rise to the governor’s post as Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam faced intense calls to resign over a racist photo that appeared in Northam’s medical school yearbook. But two women came forward with accusations that Fairfax had assaulted them more than 15 years ago, forcing him to fend off calls for his own resignation during one of the most tumultuous times in Virginia politics.

Neither man ultimately resigned. Fairfax said the sexual encounters with the women were consensual, has taken lie-detector tests he says prove it and has urged police to investigate. The women have maintained that Fairfax assaulted them and have asked the legislature to hold public hearings, which Democrats have blocked.

Earlier this year, a judge tossed out a libel lawsuit filed by Fairfax against CBS, which he accused of slanted reporting on the assault allegations against him.

If elected, Fairfax would be Virginia’s second Black governor. Two African-American women are also running for the Democratic nomination — Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and Sen. Jennifer McClellan. The U.S. has never had a Black female governor before.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also a Democrat, has indicated he may announce a run later this year. Governors cannot serve consecutive terms in Virginia.

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