Gov. Ralph Northam. Courtesy of the governor's office.

As Ralph Northam stood on the south portico of the state Capitol in January 2018, taking his oath as Virginia’s 73rd governor, he remembered the guidance that former Gov. Gerald Baliles had given him on the way. “Every time I’ve met with him he said, ‘Ralph, don’t forget about the Southwest,’” Northam said in an interview with Cardinal News last week. Almost four years later, as he prepares to leave office and returns to private life, Northam, 62, said that he heeded Baliles’ advice. “I’ll put my record for rural Virginia up against any governor,” he said. 

From Medicaid expansion to economic development, broadband access, transportation initiatives, and his leadership during the pandemic, Southwest and Southside Virginia have benefitted from his policies, Northam said. “I made rural Virginia a priority, and I have delivered on a lot of the commitments that I made. I hope future governors will do that as well.”

Northam’s tenure was “one the most unusual governorships that we’ve ever seen in Virginia,” said longtime political analyst Bob Holsworth. “He came in as a moderate, business oriented Democrat who was elected resoundeingly because of the anti-Trump wave in Virginia, a person who always did very well politically, but who didn’t seem to have any extraordinary skills in this area,” Holsworth said.

When Northam moved into Richmond’s Executive Mansion, he had already behind him a 10-year career in Virginia politics, first in the state Senate, representing his place of birth, the Eastern Shore, as well as Mathews County and parts of Norfolk and Virginia Beach. And in 2013, he was elected lieutenant governor, trouncing Republican firebrand E.W. Jackson. Just one year into his term, he announced that he would run for governor in 2017, and he eventually defeated Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee, by 53.9 to 45%, winning by the largest margin for a Democrat since 1985.

State Sen. David Suetterlein, a Republican from Roanoke County, said that he was largely disappointed in Northam’s tenure. “Obviously I didn’t support his candidacy, but I knew him from his term as a senator and lieutenant governor, and I thought he would seek our more bipartisan opportunities than he did,” Suetterlein said. “After his first state of the commonwealth speech I was disappointed with how partisan it was, it sounded way more like Terry McAuliffe than Northam.”

But in his first year in office, Northam managed to accomplish something where his predecessor had failed – getting Republicans on board with expanding Medicaid in Virginia. According to data from the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, more than 607,000 Virginians have enrolled in Medicaid since Northam signed the bipartisan legislation in June 2018, many of them in rural Southwest Virginia. “And now, being in the middle of a pandemic, to expand Medicaid and to give about 43,000 adults in the Southwest access to health insurance, can you imagine living through a pandemic and not having access to quality healthcare?” Northam said in the interview. “That means that they can see a doctor without going bankrupt, and that’s become even more important during a pandemic.”

Northam also underscored the success of his administration’s COVID-19 response. “Something else that’s not talked about enough is people knew how hard our administration and myself worked during this pandemic to keep Virginians healthy and safe, and that includes getting PPE early on and getting the test equipment and getting it out to the rural areas like we did, and then finally to have three safe and effective vaccines,” he said. But he also voiced his frustration with vaccine hesitancy, particularly in rural areas, where the inoculation rates are the lowest. “If people want to be safe and put this pandemic behind us, they’re going to have to roll up their sleeves,” the governor said. 

Holsworth said that Northam was “a remarkably fortunate governor” in a sense that Republicans gave him a victory that they had denied McAuliffe on Medicaid expansion. “And he was the first Democratic governor in a generation to have a working Democratic majority in the Assembly for two years,” Holsworth said, referring to the 2018 election when Republicans ceded their legislative control in the House of Delegates to Democrats. “You suddenly had a long list of penned up Democratic priorities that were now able to be implemented, things like marijuana legilization, ending the death penalty, all these issues that Democrats had promoted for years but had not been able to get accomplished because of the realities of divided government.”

Northam credited his transportation initiatives with connecting Southwest Virginia to the rest of the commonwealth. In June 2019, he signed two pieces of legislation for dedicated funding in the amount of $2.2 billion to improve parts of Interstate 81, which the Roanoke Regional Chamber had been pushing for. “One of the most important things you can do is to bring transportation to really open up that part of Virginia,” Northam said. “And I saw a window to get it done.”

Planning for U.S. Route 121, the so-called Coalfields Expressway, is also underway. It will provide a modern, safe and efficient highway through the coalfields region of Southwest Virginia. Designated as part of the National Highway System, the new road will link Interstates 64 and 77 in West Virginia with Route 23 in Virginia, which links to interstates in Kentucky and Tennessee. The cumulative economic impact of the Expressway in a 50-year span is estimated to be $12.8 billion in 2021 dollars, according to a study released by Richmond-based Chmura Economics & Analytics last week.

Northam said that his environmental policies have ensured that Virginia is “headed in a good direction,” and he warned Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin and the new Republican majority in the House to try to overturn or reverse those, including the Virginia Clean Economy Act that Democrats hope will accelerate the commonwealth’s transition to clean energy. The Act, which Youngkin said during his campaign he would have vetoed, requires Dominion Energy Virginia to be 100% carbon-free by 2045 and Appalachian Power to be 100% carbon-free by 2050. It also requires nearly all coal-fired plants to close by the end of 2024.

“If (Youngkin) were to veto that or reverse what we have done with clean energy, our economy will go into the tanks very quickly,” Northam said, adding that businesses want renewable, clean energy. “If we don’t do that, business will literally not come to Virginia. I think our momentum that we made towards clean energy is here to stay, and if anybody tried to reverse it, it would certainly be ill advised in my opinion,” he said. 

Another top priority of Northam’s administration was broadband expansion. At the time he assumed office, 660,000 Virginia homes and businesses remained without internet, and the state had invested only $4 million in closing this digital divide that had left especially the more remote areas of the Southwest and Southside in particular without access to high-speed internet. Since, Virginia has invested more than $846 million to connect more than 429,000 Virginia homes, businesses, and community anchors to broadband service, putting the commonwealth on track to become one of the first states to achieve universal broadband access by 2024. 

“This issue of broadband has been around for a while and everyone has mentioned how important it is to economic development, education and workforce development in Southwest and part of Southside, and I think Northam was committed to addressing it and benefited from the federal dollars to assist in doing this,” Holsworth said. “This is a major accomplishment in the commonwealth to finally address the digital divide in regional access to what has become a basic utility.”

But Democrats did not get political credit for this success, as evidenced by the recent Republican sweep in all three statewide offices and the House of Delegates, Holsworth said. “They got swamped in an unprecedented way in some of the very places that benefited from increased broadband access. The messaging from much of this administration hasn’t been productive,” he said.

Northam said that he did not understand why Democrats didn’t run on his administration’s successes. “Our administration has been able to accomplish a lot of things over the last four years, and I was surprised that some of that record was not talked about more, I think we could have seen different results,” he said. But Northam did not want to take responsibility for last month’s wide swath of Democratic defeats, instead pointing toward President Joe Biden’s low approval rating at the time and the numerous Democratic initiatives lingering in Congress. “I think a lot of it had to do with what was going on in Washington. There’s always the reality that these elections are a referendum on the person in the White House and the ratings were not good, there was a lot going on in Washington with the legislation trying to get passed, and I think that fed into this as well,” he said. 

Northam called Republicans’ focus on critical race theory, which they had elevated to a major campaign issue during the election, a dog whistle. “Critical race theory is a graduate-level, academic subject, it’s not part of our K-12 curriculum in Virginia,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that fear and anger are very strong emotions, and that’s the way it was used, and it worked well.” 

But schools should be teaching “an accurate version” of American history, and a lot of progress has been made in this regard, Northam said. “We have a lot of history in Virginia, we were the birthplace of the American experiment, and we were also the capital of the Confederacy,” he said. “I’ve always said that in order to move forward, we have to know where we have been. I really think it’s important that we learn the truth about that and that comes through an accurate and adequate history to teach our children.”

Northam said that he has also learned from what may have been the biggest controversy of his tenure as Virginia’s governor – his handling of the crisis over the image of two unidentified people in blackface and in a Ku Klux Klan hood on his page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, which first appeared on the far-right website Big League Politics in February 2019. 

At first, Northam apologized for the photo that he said showed him in “a costume that is clearly racist and offensive.” But the next morning, he said that he was convinced that it wasn’t him in the photo and in a news conference later that day publicly denied that he was either of the men in the picture. Despite increasing calls for his resignation, including from leading Democrats, Northam remained steadfast and refused to step down, which would have thrown the party into a crisis as Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax faced sexual assault allegations at the same time Northam struggled to survive politically. 

Northam for the remainder of his term tried to redeem himself by addressing racial inequities in the commonwealth, working with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus on developing strategies for closing income disparities, increasing affordable housing, supporting minority business and other social justice initiatives. 

“That was a difficult time for Virginia, and I committed myself and our administration to listen to Virginians, to learn, as I said, the more I know, the more I can do,” Northam said in the interview last week. “We were addressing inequity prior to February 2019, but it certainly put things into a stronger focus, and I committed our administration to dealing with the inequities.”

Three years later, Virginia is in a better place, Northam said. “We are a more welcoming state, we are inclusive, and that’s important to Virginia and it’s also important to businesses that want to come to Virginia,” he said. “While it was a difficult time, I’m glad that Virginians stuck with me and I think Virginia is in a better place. Certainly I’ve learned a lot and I’m a better person because of it.”

Holsworth said that Northam survived the scandal because he was “rescued” by Black voters. “They told pollsters that they were willing to give him a chance, because they believed his heart was in the right place. And mostly, he embraced the positions that the Legislative Black Caucus had been promoting for multiple years,” Holsworth said.  

Da’Quan Love, executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP, said Tuesday that “any objective analysis” would show that Northam “changed his pace” after the controversy. “It’s unfortunate that this had to happen for there to be renewed emphasis on equality, justice and doing what’s right. But it’s important to acknowledge the positive outcome that resulted from the governor’s renewed urgency on this topic,” Love said. “Governor Northam did his best to lead the commonwealth toward the right path, but we have so much more to go. And while it’s important that we celebrate our progress, it’s important to understand the work that still lies ahead.” 

In his final weeks in office, Northam has embarked on what he calls his “Thank you, Virginia”-tour, rolling out his final budget proposals almost daily. He has called for another 10% pay increase for Virginia teachers, and pay hikes for law enforcement. On Tuesday, he pushed for the elimination of the state’s 1.5% tax on groceries – also an important pillar of Youngkin’s campaign platform – calling it “regressive on low-income individuals.” Northam is also proposing a one-time tax rebate of $250 for individual filers and $500 for married couples, and to make up to 15% of the federal income tax credit refundable for eligible families.

Suetterlein, the Republican state senator, applauded Northam for including the grocery tax relief and other tax incentives in his last budget proposal. “But there were four years where he could have worked to do that and, and he would have found dozens of Republicans who would have loved to work in a bipartisan fashion to lower grocery bills. Instead he pursued policies that raised the cost of electricity, fuel cost and raised the tax on rotisserie chicken at the grocery store,” Suetterlein said. While he believed that Northam really cared about trying to improve the economic situation across rural regions, Suetterlein said that the “highly partisan approach and the variety of policies that he pushed through on party-line votes made that so much harder.” 

But Suetterlein gives Northam credit for signing off last month on the Certificate of Public Need application for a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at LewisGale Medical Center in Salem. “Although it took longer than hoped, the administration’s ultimate approval was critically important,” Suetterlein said.

Holsworth, the political analyst, said that Northam’s last-minute proposals are designed to “beat Youngkin to the punch in some of those issues,” and in some ways to corner his successor. “If Youngkin tries to remove these from the budget, he’ll be seen as kind of a Grinch. There is a sense that the state is flusher because of the federal dollars and that the state has been doing well during the pandemic, that they have a lot of money to spend.”

In some ways, Northam leaves as someone with a pretty good list of Democratic wins, Holsworth said. “He was such a low-key governor in so many ways. He was not a person who cut a large swath as he was involved in the office, and he was not inclined to self promotion, nor was he inclined to be very involved politically on behalf of others, and when he did, it didn’t matter, like with Jay Jones,” he said, referring to Northam’s endorsement of the delegate challenging Attorney General Mark Herring in the Democratic primary.

Yet Northam said he has no regrets. “I’m a listener, that’s what I’m trained to do as a doctor and that’s what I try to do as governor, to listen to what people’s needs are, to try to recognize and feel their pain and respond to those. I tried to work with people from both sides of the aisle, but politics, as you know, is very polarized and that frustrates me, but I get it and I did the best I could,” he said. “I don’t think there’s really anything that I would have done differently.”

And what’s next for the parting governor? Northam, a pediatric neurologist, said that on the Monday following Youngkin’s inauguration, he will be back treating patients with the Children’s Speciality Group that he co-founded in Norfolk in the 1990s. “I really look forward to that practice. I like to teach my students and residents, and that’s what I will be doing come January,” he said. As for his life in politics, Northam said he wants to stay involved: “You can never totally shut the door, and I will say there is more to come, but as far as running for office, I doubt you’ll see me on the ballot anytime soon.” 

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.