Gov. Ralph Northam leads a chant of "Blue! Wave!" at a watch party downtown Richmond, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

What a world of a difference nine months and an election make.

In February, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam was fighting for his political life, with the blackface revelation and his less-than-inspiring response prompting widespread calls for his resignation from many in his party, which captured control of the General Assembly Tuesday for the first time in more than two decades.

On Wednesday morning, there was Northam and his cabinet before the media in a scripted bit that appeared aimed at completing Northam’s climb back into the saddle atop the party’s agenda.

It was foreshadowed by his PAC last month, which, in an ad and news release that was remarkable for its timing at a critical juncture in the election, proclaimed that Democrats were running “directly on the policy priorities and accomplishments of the Northam administration, including Medicaid expansion, common sense gun safety legislation, public teacher pay raises and economic growth.”

Republicans are licking their wounds and Democrats are already jostling to pick a leader in the House. Who Democrats select will be a major early indicator of how far they intend to go with their new majorities. Expect tension, if not outright conflict, when the General Assembly convenes again here in January between the centrists, wary of going too far too fast and jeopardizing those hard-earned gains, and the progressives, who see a broad mandate from voters on health care, guns, LGBT rights, labor laws and climate change and the environment.

“It’s very easy to be in the minority party and criticize the majority,” Alex Keena, a political science professor at VCU, told me before the election. “But once you have the reins of government, all your warts and scars start to show and you have to find a way to keep the party united.”

What it will likely all boil down to, though, is how far Northam is willing to go, meaning the man who was in a hell of a political doghouse not long ago now occupies the catbird seat.

Not entirely undeservedly, some political observers said.

“While the governor had an extremely difficult year two, it is important to remember he had an extraordinary year one — the passage of Medicaid expansion is a very, very big deal to many families struggling with health care costs around the state,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

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)

“You can try as much as you want to sideline a governor or make them irrelevant, but the truth is they have a lot of power,” Keena said, citing the special session on guns Northam called in the wake of the Virginia Beach municipal building mass shooting. “That’s a perfect example of something that played into the hands of General Assembly candidates,” he added, noting that it put GOP suburban candidates in an “uncomfortable position.”

Reading the tea leaves, it looks like something of a mixed bag. For example, Northam looks like he’ll push for the full slate of gun bills he introduced in the special session. He also talked about ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, raising the minimum wage, marijuana reform and letting localities decide the fate of Confederate monuments.

“He could certainly be the brake on some of the progressive tendencies in the Democratic Party right now,” said veteran Virginia political commentator Bob Holsworth. “At the same time, my sense is there’s a pretty large consensus agenda that will emerge in the next few months.”

On utility regulation, discussion of which appeared to be largely absent from his public cabinet meeting Wednesday, Northam seems squishier.

The governor and the state’s largest utility, Dominion Energy — which, with its donations, over earnings and environmental controversies, has become the bête noire of Democratic politics — sure look they’ve been singing from the same hymnal over the past few months.

“They’re certainly talking to Dominion more than they’re talking to us,” one conservation lobbyist grumbled to me last week about the Northam administration.

Let us count the ways:

• Last month, Northam and Dominion announced a deal to meet nearly half of state government electric demands with renewable power by 2022, with the governor’s office calling it a “bargain” for state taxpayers.

• In September, Northam published an executive order calling for a carbon-free electric grid in Virginia by 2050. The same day, at a clean energy summit in Richmond, a Dominion executive said the governor’s goals are “aligned” with the utility’s own. A company spokesman had an enthusiastic “challenge accepted” response for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. If you think all that happened without a consultation between the governor’s office and Dominion, may I interest you in a certain bridge over the East River?

• Northam signaled he’s not interested in the push to open up Virginia to more electric competition, a move pushed by an unusual liberal-conservative coalition that was rolled out with the help of former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli before he took his current job as the face of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. While full deregulation may be a long shot, large companies with big renewable energy goals are losing patience with Dominion and are no longer content to sit on the sidelines during the session. With that as the backdrop, here’s what Northam said about utility regulation last month to S&P Global Market Intelligence (h/t to Bacon’s Rebellion): “I think right now as we move forward, we’re going to work with the system that we have,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect system, but it is a system that we can work with.”

What does it all mean? At a time when large numbers of Democrats are holding Dominion fully at arm’s length — Clean Virginia, among the groups behind the deregulation push, says 50 winning General Assembly candidates rejected utility contributions, along with the state party — the governor is keeping the utility very close, it seems. (He also hired a former Dominion official to join his communications office).

It could mean that the company will be able to count on the governor’s pull (and perhaps his veto pen) during a session that promises to be an energy policy melee with Democrats newly in control of the all-important commerce and labor committees and an array of interests — solar developers, energy efficiency types, environmental groups and large companies like Walmart and Costco, among others — seeking to bust open the doors that Dominion has been able to keep largely shut until now.

After all, Northam’s shown he’s been willing to pull strings for Dominion before.

Holsworth, for one, says he doesn’t see Northam taking a hard line with Dominion.

“He’s never been somebody who has easily joined the anti-Dominion chorus,” he said. “Certainly this is one big source of tension between him and the other Democrats who have made in some ways Dominion the poster child for their regulatory agenda.”

On the whole, Holsworth thinks there’s enough consensus on many issues among Democrats to avoid major fighting between progressives and centrists.

“They’ll go largely on the agenda on which most of them campaigned,” he said. “They can only go so far because of the governor.”

CORRECTION: This post had been edited to correct the characterization of the discussion of energy and environmental issues at the governor’s cabinet meeting Wednesday and to add the hiring of a former Dominion official who joined the governor’s communications team. 

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]