Governor Ralph Northam and other officials in Wythe County. Courtesy of Wythe County IDA

History is the great abbreviator.

We remember Lindsay Almond as the governor who led Virginia into “massive resistance” against integration but forget he also made a push for stronger math and science education in the wake of Sputnik.

We remember Linwood Holton for declaring “the era of defiance is behind us” but often overlook that he was an environmental governor whose policies turned Smith Mountain Lake from a cesspool into a recreational mecca whose water is today used for drinking water.

We remember George Allen as a tough-on-crime governor but forget he also pardoned a man convicted of rape when DNA testing – then still an innovation – cleared him, and also had the guts to call the woman who identified him to tell her she had named the wrong man.

So how will history remember Ralph Northam, whose term as Virginia’s 73rd governor is now in its final weeks?

More bluntly, will Northam’s tenure in the seat of Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson be reduced to his infamous yearbook photo? That’s impossible to ignore, of course, especially given how Northam used that experience to focus his administration on racial justice in a way that it hadn’t been before. But that shorthand would miss a bigger picture: Northam has been one of Virginia’s most transformational governors ever, on a par with Harry Byrd, Mills Godwin (that’s first-term Mills Godwin), Holton and Gerald Baliles. Now, whether you agree with all those transformations is another matter, but the mild-mannered doctor from the Eastern Shore by way of Norfolk has left his mark on Virginia in a way few might have expected when he was elected four years ago. He succeeded a governor some might call bombastic – the irrepressible Terry McAuliffe, who often tried to project a larger-than-life image. Yet it was his low-key successor who got more done. 

This is only a partial list but hints at the sheer scale of what has taken place: Under Northam, Virginia abolished the death penalty and legalized marijuana. It expanded Medicaid, which Democrats saw as a moral necessity and many Republicans saw as a budget-buster. It passed the Clean Economy Act that will phase out fossil fuels and create a carbon-free electric grid but which critics say will raise energy prices. Confederate statues came down (sometimes more legally than others). Casinos started going up. Virginia landed the biggest economic development announcement of our time – Amazon’s vaunted HQ2 that is coming to Arlington and cemented Northern Virginia’s status as a technology capital. Southwest Virginia landed the biggest economic development in the region since the state started keeping records three decades ago – a medical glove manufacturer that will employ nearly 2,500 is coming to Wythe County.

Northam was not necessarily the driver behind all those things, but they happened under his watch. Virginia today is a very different place than it was four years ago. Not everyone thinks that’s a good thing, of course, but it’s notable that even though voters dramatically decided in November to put a new party in charge for a while, not even Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin is promising to undo these things. And yet, for all these changes, the Northam administration was not universally popular on the left. The same governor who signed the Clean Economy Act – and has warned Youngkin not to undo it – also appointed people who signed off on the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline natural gas project. Maybe the courts will intervene to halt the pipeline – some courts have been far more skeptical than state regulators – but a Republican administration sure isn’t going to stop a pipeline project than a Democratic one let go forward. Those who oppose the pipeline can only wonder what might have happened if former 5th District Rep. Tom Perriello, who had made the pipeline a signature campaign theme, had defeated Northam in the 2017 Democratic primary.

Northam will also be remembered as the governor who had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Of all the nation’s governors, only one is a doctor, who is surely more capable of understanding the science behind the virus than some mere politician. It’s surprising that Northam did not become a national celebrity during the pandemic by virtue of his profession. On the other hand, that is not Northam’s way. He’s a low-key, soft-spoken man who sometimes seems out of place in politics, but whose bedside manner as a physician is exemplary. There’s much to debate about how Virginia reacted to the virus but there seems no doubt that Northam reacted more like a doctor would with a patient than how a politician would. You need only look at certain other governors around the country to see that.

In politics, the things that are controversial naturally get more attention than those things that aren’t. One of the most transformational things that Northam has presided over is the expansion of rural broadband. The political reality is that everybody is for rural broadband, Democrats and Republicans alike, so maybe it doesn’t matter who the governor is. Nonetheless, the fact remains: That broadband gap narrowed a lot during the Northam years, and now Youngkin is teed up to be the governor who gets to declare that universal broadband is really here. (When that happens, he probably won’t mention all the money that has come from the infrastructure bill that Democrats pushed through Congress over Republican opposition.) This is the modern-day equivalent of rural electrification in the 1930s. Gary Wood, president and CEO of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative based in Fluvanna County, calls the internet our fourth utility – electricity, water, telephones are the others. The expansion of broadband is already starting to change some communities – Nelson County now has more than 11% of its workforce working from home. Others, particularly those that have been losing population, are hoping it will change theirs by making them magnets for remote workers who like a rural environment. It may take years, even decades, for all that to play out, but history can record that it was under Northam that this transformation started to take place.

Another transformation: When Northam took office, Amtrak’s service to Roanoke was just a few months old. By the time he leaves office, that route has proven so successful that Northam was able to announce the addition of a second train – likely sometime in 2022 – and the eventual extension of the line to Christiansburg. That’s enough for those farther southwest to talk more earnestly about getting Amtrak to run all the way to Bristol.

In an interview with Cardinal News, Northam seemed to lament that his party chose to spend more time in 2021 talking about what Donald Trump had done over his four years as president than what Northam had done over his four years as governor. “I think our record could have been talked about more with different results,” he said. Republicans would disagree but Democrats who are proud of what they’ve accomplished might want to reflect on how their 2021 campaign spent so little time on these things. Republicans in 2021 spent more time talking down Northam’s record than Democrats did talking it up. Southwest Virginia was a major beneficiary of one of Northam’s most practical legacies, Medicaid expansion, but the election returns sure didn’t reflect that gratitude.

No administration is without its scandals, its mishaps, its bad decisions. The biggest scandal under Northam wasn’t the yearbook – that was something that happened years ago – but the shockingly lax release policies of the Virginia Parole Board. That is something Youngkin has promised to undo.

Northam spoke in his inaugural address about “crumbling schools,” but finding the money to fix them has proven elusive. State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has repeatedly proposed a $4 billion bond issue – and a constitutional amendment to close the loophole that sanctions a vast disparity between schools in affluent communities and schools in not-so-affluent ones. I remain mystified why Democrats haven’t rallied behind this. I understand the instinct to not embrace something that someone on the other side has proposed, but this would seem to be the exception. Historically, it was a liberal Democrat – Francis Pickens Miller in 1949 – who tried to get the state to spend more on modernizing schools. Today, Democrats have ceded that issue to at least one Republican (we’ll see whether Youngkin agrees). The point being: Northam opted for more incremental progress, such as proposing that money from the state’s future casinos go toward school construction. “If they continue to legalize recreational marijuana, I think we can also use that for building schools and modernizing,” he told Cardinal News in an exit interview. Might a different governor have tried to strike a grand bargain? In his final budget, Northam did finally address school modernization in a serious way, proposing $500 million. For historical context, Miller so spooked the Byrd Machine on school funding that in 1950 Gov. John Battle launched a school construction program that eventually totaled $75 million. In today’s dollars, that would just under $865 million, so Northam comes in somewhat short of that. Of course, all the dollar amounts kicked around fall far short of the $18 billion in school construction needs that were tallied up in 2013 under then-Gov. Bob McDonnell – a figure that’s surely only grown since then.

As a candidate, Northam talked about adding graduate programs in renewable energy to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise – at the time, it was one of just two state-supported four-year schools without a graduate program. As governor, Northam has wound up proposing more money for UVa-Wise but it’s not the center for renewable energy research he envisioned. On the other hand, we haven’t seen the community in Southwest Virginia clamor for this, either – which seems odd given the opportunity. Instead, we see the InvestSWVA economic development group pushing a private renewable energy research project.

These are things, though, that will fade with time, as history condenses the Northam years in our collective memory. Politics ebb and flow, like the tide washing up on Northam’s native Accomack County, and those on the left and the right will assign conflicting grades to his governorship as they always do. History, though, seems likely to assign a different letter grade to Northam: T for transformational.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.