Five things Northam says he will (and maybe won’t) do with a Democratic majority

By: - November 6, 2019 1:49 pm

Gov. Ralph Northam held a public cabinet meeting last month to lay out his policy goals for the coming legislative session — bills that have failed in past years but are now likely to pass under Democratic control of the General Assembly. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

For the first time in 26 years, Democrats will have complete legislative control and an ally in the Executive Mansion.

It means the policies and proposals that have floundered under a Republican majority stand a chance, as long as it gets the final approval of Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.

“I think Virginians spoke yesterday,” Northam said in a public cabinet meeting held the morning after elections. “They like the progress we’ve made in the last two years. I believe we have a unique opportunity in the next two years.”

Northam discussed a few policy areas he was all in on and some supported by more progressive members of his party that he appears less excited about.


Northam said he said he thinks Democratic voters were especially incensed over Republicans’ failure to pass gun violence prevention laws after the Virginia Beach mass shooting. He’s open to whatever legislation comes his way, but said he’s especially focused on eight policies he set forth for the special legislative session he called in June to address gun violence in the state.

“They’re pieces of legislation that will save lives, they’re also pieces of legislation that Virginians agree with,” Northam said. “We’ll at least start with those.”

His list:

  • Universal background checks
  • A ban on weapons with high-capacity magazines, suppressors and bump stocks
  • Reinstating Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month rule
  • Requiring reporting of lost and stolen firearms within 24 hours
  • An extreme risk protection, or red flag, law
  • Tougher penalties for allowing children under 18 to access to loaded firearms
  • Allowing municipalities to “enact any firearms ordinances that are stricter than state law”
  • Prohibiting anyone subject to a protective order from possessing firearms

All of those proposals died in committee during the regular session and were referred to the State Crime Commission. Lawmakers are due back in Richmond Nov. 18 to reconsider the legislation, but Northam isn’t holding his breath that anything will come of it.

“Here we are in November,” he said. “Right around the corner is January and we’ll be back in session so I suspect most of the work will be done in January.”

Gov. Ralph Northam held a public cabinet meeting Wednesday to lay out his policy goals for the coming legislative session — bills that have failed in past years but are now likely to pass under Democratic control of the General Assembly. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Confederate monuments

Northam reiterated said he’s ready to let localities decide what to do with their Confederate monuments.

“The localities are in the best position to make that decision,” he said. “Obviously there needs to be a change in the code to do that. I suspect legislation will be introduced to move in that direction.”

The issue is playing out courts across the state, including Charlottesville and Norfolk.

Labor policy

Northam isn’t biting on policy ideas from younger, more progressive members of his party.

He said he doesn’t deal with “hypotheticals,” like some members’ calls to repeal the state’s long-standing Right to Work law, which prohibits unions from, for instance, making dues mandatory in organized workplaces.

Democratic Socialist Del. Lee Carter in Manassas is the lead voice in pushing for that repeal. He filed legislation for it and a bill that would allow government employees, like teachers, to strike without punishment.

Older Democrats have balked at Carter’s suggestion to repeal the Right to Work law.

Northam, who enjoyed success as a state senator and whose moderate politics were hailed as a key to winning his gubernatorial race, didn’t say what he would do if those sorts of things made it to him.

“That’s a hypothetical question,” he said. “I don’t deal with hypothetical questions, I deal with what’s put on my desk.”

Carter’s bills languished in committees this year.

Northam said he’s focused on “realities,” like helping workers by making sure people get training for available jobs and raising the minimum wage.

Minimum wage

But Northam isn’t ready to say how high the state’s minimum wage should go or how fast it should get there. He’s only willing to say it needs to more than $7.25 an hour.

“I think all of us can hopefully agree there’s no way you can support yourself or your family on $7.25 an hour,” he said. Past proposals from Democrats to raise the minimum wage have “fallen on deaf ears,” according to Northam.

In this year’s General Assembly session, legislation from Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, would have incrementally raised minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021.


As part of his larger criminal justice reform effort, Northam is ready to decriminalize marijuana.

Decriminalization isn’t the same as legalization. He didn’t mention legalization, which would allow recreational marijuana use.

Northam’s version of loosening marijuana-related punishment would make violations related to the drug a civil offense instead of criminal — like getting a traffic ticket instead of going to jail.

He’s supported decriminalization since his 2017 gubernatorial run and several lawmakers who support it have said they expect traction on the issue with a Democratic majority.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.