‘We’re pretty pleased;’ What Northam’s done to address his promise to bolster racial equity

By: - March 28, 2019 5:01 am

Gov. Ralph Northam outlined a package of proposed funding increases for schools that includes an additional 2 percent raise for teachers. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Dec. 11, 2018)

Defying calls for his resignation in the wake of his blackface scandal, Gov. Ralph Northam pledged to dedicate the remainder of his term to issues of racial equity. And his legislative amendments and vetoes, due Tuesday at midnight, gave him a concrete opportunity to turn words into action.

Some lawmakers and observers say he made good on his promise.

At the same time, the bigger picture that emerged over the past week was that of a man doing less to position himself as a “healer in chief” and more establishing himself as a walking, talking, fully functional governor. The kind who, for instance, appears in public with other lawmakers without having to dodge awkward questions and calls for him to step down.

“He’s used these amendments to address the broad policy issues one would expect from governors,” says veteran political analyst Bob Holsworth. “He’s acting like a normal governor, and that’s where he needs to be, because I just don’t think it’s in his DNA to be the person leading a statewide discussion on racial equity. He doesn’t do that well.”

Holsworth said Northam hit on race-adjacent issues to the degree that the legislation and budget before him gave him the opportunity, even if he didn’t necessarily hammer those points home in his public announcements and events, which advanced the kinds of legislative proposals you might expect from any sitting Democratic governor. The broader issues he tackled included hands-free driving, abortion, police body cameras and greenhouse gas emissions.

His press secretary, Alena Yarmosky, pointed to a dozen vetoes and budget amendments they said were taken specifically with issues of equity in mind.

Among his proposals that will go before lawmakers during next week’s veto session:

• Broadening a plan to provide $110 tax refunds ($220 for couples) to an additional 151,000 taxpayers who make less than $50,000 a year.

• Ending the practice of suspending drivers licenses for the nonpayment of court fines and fees, an issue that affects hundreds of thousands of residents.

• Providing an addition $4 million for affordable housing.

• Restoring $1.5 million cut by lawmakers for the coming U.S. census, which advocates say often undercounts low income and minority residents.

• Boosting state spending with companies owned by women in minorities in a couple of ways, including providing $500,000 to study disparity in how contracts are awarded and establish “programming specific to woman and minority-owned businesses.”

• Vetoing legislation that would have required jails to notify ICE about undocumented immigrants in their custody, mandated a social security number for voter registration and prohibited some convicted felons from serving as notary publics.

The proposals will go straight to the floor of the House and Senate, sidestepping the labyrinth of legislative committees that can ensnare otherwise popular legislation. Amendments require a simple majority to pass, vetoes can only be overturned with a two-thirds vote.

The chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, credited Northam for his work.

“A number of those are directly from our agenda,” he said. “So we’re pretty pleased with that.”

The caucus has stood behind its call for Northam to resign, but Bagby said that won’t stop members from working with him to advance their goals. Lawmakers from both parties have flanked Northam at events over the past few days as he announced his decisions and initiatives.

“While we may differ or have some concerns about the revelations of Feb. 1 and the stumbles thereafter, our primary and, I believe, sole goal as legislators is to legislate and to make sure the actions of the General Assembly and the administration benefit those individuals we were elected to represent,” Bagby said.

Holsworth says the bigger test for Northam will come next year.

“I think there will be a clear effort at that when you get to the next budget,” he said. “At the moment, he’s looking like most governors do.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.