RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam hails from the rural Eastern Shore, and reflecting on his four-year tenure his fourth and final State of the Commonwealth address in Richmond Wednesday, he made known that he has never forgotten his humble roots. “I’ve made rural Virginia a priority,” Northam said at a joint session of the state Senate and the House of Delegates, touting his administration’s successes.
From Medicaid expansion, to economic development, transportation initiatives, broadband access, a minimum wage hike, criminal justice reform and the state’s response to a deadly global pandemic – with his calm, reassuring demeanor the pediatric neurologist has steered the commonwealth through four tumultuous years. And Northam never stopped believing that residents of Southwest and Southside Virginia have benefitted from his policies, including those who didn’t vote for him.
“As my friend Senator Bill Stanley reminded me recently, I promised him I wouldn’t forget Southside, and he’ll tell you that I lived up to my word,” Northam said.
Citing record achievements in rural economic development – such as “the biggest new jobs announcement in Southwest Virginia in a decade,” Northam took credit for luring the medical glove manufacturer Blue Star to Wythe County. The company has vowed to create nearly 2,500 jobs and invest $714 million over the next five years.
“Rural areas often don’t have the same work or educational opportunities as our urban and suburban areas,” Northam said. “In other parts of the state, you often hear, ‘well, why don’t they just move?’ But that’s not the answer. Instead of encouraging people to leave rural areas, we have worked to bring more opportunities to them.”
Northam hands over to Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin a solid economy and a flush two-year budget totalling $158 billion. A strong economic recovery and federal aid during the pandemic allowed the administration to set aside $1.7 billion to the commonwealth’s revenue reserves, including a $564 million voluntary deposit, bringing the total reserves amount to more than $3.8 billion – more than double the 8% that the administration set as a goal four years ago.
And earlier on Wednesday, Northam announced that total general fund revenues rose 19.2% in December, the fifth straight month of double-digit revenue growth in the commonwealth. “I am leaving you with the strongest state budget Virginia has ever seen,” Northam said.
Because of the strong economy, Virginia has the funding to catch up on long-delayed investments, while also putting money back into the pockets of the hardest working Virginians, Northam said. “We need to be clear, this is because we have consistently taken a prudent, cautious approach to budgeting,” he added. “We have strengthened our balance sheet to keep our finances stable; we’ve made targeted long-term investments to help Virginia grow, helped people get through the pandemic, and put money aside as a buffer for the future.”
Northam said that during his tenure as governor, he has traveled the world, meeting companies, and telling them why Virginia is the best place for business. “During our four years, we’ve brought in more than $81 billion in economic investment, more than four times any previous administration, and created more than 103,000 jobs,” Northam said. “From day one, I wanted Virginia to be the best state for business, because I knew it would mean we were doing the right things to attract jobs and help Virginians.”
One of Northam’s biggest economic victories was in 2019, when he signed legislation that paved the way for the state to provide up to $750 million in cash incentives for Amazon to build its new headquarters in the northernmost part of the state. “From Amazon making Virginia home to its second headquarters in 2018, to Micron’s $3 billion investment to build semiconductors, to Blue Star’s incredible commitment to make billions of medical gloves in Wytheville, Virginia is the state where companies want to invest, put down roots, and grow,” Northam said.
When Northam was elected governor in 2017, he had already behind him a 10-year career in Virginia politics. He had served in the state Senate, representing his place of birth, the Eastern Shore, as well as Mathews County and parts of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, followed by one term as lieutenant governor, after he defeated Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee, in 2013 by 53.9 to 45%, winning by the largest margin for a Democrat since 1985.
And in his first year in office, Northam managed to accomplish something where his predecessor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe 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.
“We were able to come together, across party lines, because it was the right thing to do. That is who we are. We don’t just want health care for ourselves – we want it for our neighbors,” Northam said. “And never before has our health been so dependent on others, as in the past 22 months of this pandemic. In the midst of a contagious respiratory virus, where my actions affect you and your actions affect me, we needed Virginia to be a state where people take care of their neighbors.”
Yet many of Northam’s signature accomplishments happened after 2018, when Republicans lost their majority in the House, making him the first Democratic governor in a generation to have a working Democratic majority in the Assembly for two years.
During this time, Virginia moved to take down Confederate monuments, legalize marijuana and abolish the death penalty – three key Democratic priorities that would not have survived in a Republican legislature. “Too often, our modern-day punishments and practices have their roots in a more discriminatory and unfair past. That’s why we’ve made marijuana use legal. That’s also why we have ended use of the death penalty in Virginia — the first southern state to do so — because it was applied unfairly, and we couldn’t rely on the system to get it right,” Northam said.
Northam referenced the Martinsville 7 – Black men who were convicted by an all-white jury and executed in 1951 for raping a white woman in 1949. “In Virginia, it was almost entirely Black men who were sentenced to death for rape convictions, and it was clear these seven men were executed because they were Black,” Northam said. “I was glad to acknowledge that wrong, in some measure, by granting them a posthumous pardon earlier this year.” The administration also restored the civil rights and voting rights for nearly 126,000 people, and issued more than 1,100 pardons – more than all past governors combined.
Broadband expansion, particularly in the mountainous regions of the Southwest, had also been high on Northam’s list since assuming office. Virginia has since grown investments from $4 million a year, to $2 billion, in part owed to the fact that the state had been able to tap into $700 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to back the effort. “We’re on track to have universal broadband on its way to every community by 2024 – far faster than expected, and faster than most other states,” Northam said. “This is one of the most important investments we could have made, especially in rural communities. Broadband is to today’s economy what electricity was generations ago.”
In April 2020, the Democrats in the legislature also sent the Clean Energy Act to Northam’s desk, a sweeping measure pushing for new initiatives to promote energy efficiency that sets a schedule for closing old fossil fuel power plants, and requires electricity to come from 100% renewable sources such as solar or wind.
“Clean energy is a job generator. Businesses that are looking to locate in Virginia like our renewable energy initiatives, and Virginia is also at the vanguard of the new offshore wind energy industry in the United States,” Northam said, adding that his administration put in place the right policies to make Virginia a leader in clean energy, and the jobs and economic progress that come with it. “We must embrace clean energy, because the cost of not doing so will be devastating,” Northam said.
House Republicans earlier on Wednesday said in a news conference that they would not try to repeal the law but amend it to make electricity more affordable.
But apart from Northam’s handling of the self-inflicted 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, it may be his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic that Northam will be most remembered for.
As the nation’s only governor who is also a doctor, Northam quickly reacted by closing all Virginia schools and imposing statewide restrictions to allow no more than 100 people at public gatherings. While nearly 16,000 Virginians have died of COVID in the past 22 months and Virginia’s vaccine rollout has been uneven and sometimes confusing, almost 6 million residents of the commonwealth are now fully vaccinated.
“We have followed the science to keep Virginians as safe and healthy as possible, we have seen fewer cases and fewer deaths than many of our neighbors,” Northam said. “Nearly 90 percent of our adult population has had at least one shot. We’re the 9th state in the nation for having our residents fully vaccinated, and for vaccination rates for teenagers.”
In the formal Virginia GOP response to Northam’s State of the Commonwealth address, state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, chose not to look back at the past four years.
“Just three days from now, at noon on Saturday, we will inaugurate a new governor,” Pillion said. “The decisive results of November’s elections, with Glenn Youngkin, Winsome Sears, and Jason Miyares prevailing, signaled that Virginians wanted to move in a different direction. Returning Republicans to the majority in the House of Delegates only reinforced the people’s desire for positive change.”
As the 2022 General Assembly session begins, Republicans are looking forward, Pillion said. “And, we hope Democrat lawmakers will be looking forward, too.”
But unlike Pillion, the newly elected House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, did not mince his words. “Ralph Northam is leaving office as his own lost cause, condescendingly lecturing us all from some assumed moral high ground because he read the book ‘Roots’ and then went on a non-stop reconciliation tour. Saturday can’t come fast enough,” Gilbert wrote on Twitter.
In an interview with Cardinal News in December, Northam 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.
And on Wednesday, he said with much confidence that he was leaving the commonwealth a better place and more united than it was when he came to office in 2018.
“We all work in good faith to try to understand the world we live in together. It’s hard, when we don’t all hear the same stories, and we don’t all understand the same facts,” Northam said. “It can feel like we’re further apart than ever. But the Virginia I see is full of people who have more in common than their differences, and the better we understand our past, the more we broaden that common ground.”