The strange, roller-coaster term of Virginia’s improbable governor, Ralph Northam

January 10, 2022 12:03 am

Gov. Ralph Northam talks to reporters in the Capitol ahead of the 2020 legislative session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Happy trails, Governor Northam.

By the end of this week, the strange, improbable four-year tour of Virginia’s 73rd governor, His Excellency Ralph Shearer Northam, will be over.

In a time-honored ceremony on Saturday morning, surrounded by living former governors dressed befitting a high-society church wedding, the mild-mannered Eastern Shore-raised country doctor who ambled into the Virginia Senate for the first time just 14 years ago literally turns the keys to the Executive Mansion over to the 74th governor, His soon-to-be-Excellency Glenn Youngkin.

(Yes, they really do use that royal-sounding honorific in official introductions of Virginia governors. It’s been a thing since Jamestown.)

Gov. Northam, fare thee well in your return to civilian life. Whether it’s resuming your work as a pediatric neurologist, becoming a high-profile rainmaker for one of the white-shoe lobbying shops that dot Richmond’s cityscape between Canal and Main streets, or just tending your garden, I wish you well, sir.

One thing about your single, non-renewable term that Virginia’s Constitution uniquely affords its chief executives: It wasn’t boring, much as you might have wished it to be. Yours were theme-park years for the press corps.

The Northam administration was arguably the most consequential in modern Virginia history. I neither covered nor heard of a time when Virginia transformed its foundational policy so swiftly and profoundly.

Since you took your oath that Saturday morning in January 2018, the commonwealth has expanded Medicaid to nearly half a million additional low-income Virginians who lacked health care insurance, passed one of the nation’s most aggressive decarbonization regimes, become the first former Confederate state to abolish the death penalty, legalized the recreational use of marijuana, imposed new restrictions on what had been Virginia’s lasseiz faire firearms environment and closed the so-called gun show loophole, enacted significant criminal justice reforms, eliminated longstanding obstacles to voting and set in place incremental increases in the minimum wage.

Except for Medicaid expansion, most of those accomplishments came in the brief two-year window when your Democratic Party was able to consolidate full control of both the legislative and executive branch of government for the first time in a generation. Fair to say that the same has not been true in Washington where Democrats have held slim majorities for nearly a year now but have little to show for it.

Democrats have controlled Virginia government for two years. Here’s what they’ve done.

You presided over a year of almost biblical tumult and unrest in 2020. It began with thousands of Second Amendment protesters descending on Capitol Square, many with war weapons slung from their shoulders or Dirty Harry-style hand cannons weighing down hip holsters. But as edgy and contentious as it felt, peace prevailed.

Within a couple of weeks, the commonwealth (along with the rest of the world) had gone dark, quarantined against a novel, killer respiratory virus against which humanity had no immunity. The economy crashed and fear of an uncertain future prevailed as nursing home deaths skyrocketed and refrigerator trucks became impromptu morgues.

After Memorial Day, however, a White policeman’s wanton, broad-daylight strangulation of a Black man on a Minneapolis street unleashed rage that spilled into the streets of Virginia cities, particularly Richmond where monuments to Confederate figures have been toppled, including the towering tribute to Robert E. Lee you ordered removed.

That you were still in office by 2020 is remarkable in itself. The discovery of a photo of one person in Klan regalia and the other wearing blackface on your long-ago Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page created a global sensation. Your whiplash-fast contradictory responses didn’t help.

In his own words: Northam describes moonwalking in blackface, denies appearing in KKK photo

You went from apologizing for a mistake from your past on a Friday night to a fulsome denial of any role in the photos at a Saturday afternoon press conference where, but for the first lady’s superb sense of restraint, you might have shown off your Michael Jackson moonwalk moves for the world. You remained a leading punchline for late-night comedians for weeks.

But you held steady while the whole political world screamed for your ouster. A subsequent inquiry by a team of top white-collar litigators from McGuireWoods could not conclusively identify either person in that photo.

By the end of the year, you had not only largely put the furor behind you, you had flipped the script on the Republicans by shifting the focus to gun control after a heartbreaking mass shooting in Virginia Beach. 

By election night 2019, you had led your party to wall-to-wall political dominance of Virginia government.

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)

But turmoil was never far away.

Your final full year was pocked with calamities at state agencies that did not cover the governor’s office in glory and left many wondering whether you had effectively checked out early. Problems arose and seemed to fester into scandals before your administration engaged, and when it did, it often took on a circle-the-wagons defensiveness.

Repeatedly, the administration, which was described by an allied lawmaker once as suffering from a culture of “toxic positivity,” found itself playing catch-up and doing damage control.

There were the press disclosures that the Parole Board had selectively freed convicted killers without sufficient notice to victims’ survivors and other policy violations. Media inquiries were met with opacity and lectures.

The Virginia Employment Commission fell hopelessly behind in its job of adjudicating unemployment claims and shut itself off from communication with tens of thousands of frantic claimants facing financial ruin and homelessness at the height of the pandemic. The administration changed nothing about the agency’s indifferent and insular leadership. Redress came only in the form of a lawsuit and direct intervention by U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson. 

Scathing audit faults poor management for Virginia’s unemployment insurance failures

And finally, there was last week’s debacle on a 40-mile stretch of Interstate 95 when hundreds, possibly thousands, of motorists were stranded on the snow-covered freeway overnight with temperatures in the teens, raising questions about the state’s preparedness and response. Sure, there were unusual circumstances. Yes, state and local law-enforcement along with Virginia Department of Transportation crews did their best, often working heroically and beyond exhaustion, but they were plainly understaffed. No emergency declaration was made and the National Guard with its military grade, high-clearance all-weather vehicles was never mustered to help with the rescue and to expedite food, water, warmth and aid to those helplessly shivering on the primary East Coast traffic artery connecting Miami to Boston via New York and Washington.

Then, when respected veteran Virginia Capitol correspondent Matt Demlein dared ask you about it in a WRVA interview, you turned sullen and said you were “getting sick and tired of people talking about what went wrong.” You questioned the prudence and judgment of drivers who got stuck, despite that fact some Democratic lawmakers were among them, including Sen. Tim Kaine and state Del. Laschrecse Aird.

Maybe it’s because the finish line was in sight and the temptation to just cut loose was too overpowering, but it wasn’t a good look for a sitting governor at any point, particularly in response to perceived inaction and being held to account for something that clearly went wrong.

There’s probably a great autobiography to be written if you’re up to it — nonfiction that reads like fiction. Comedy in one chapter; tragedy in the next. Stunning achievement offset by mystifying self-defeat. A centrist Democrat who voted for George W. Bush and who once was reportedly nearly convinced to switch parties by Virginia Republicans yet presided over the most sweeping progressive transformation of Virginia law in the state’s history. 

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a press conference in August 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

 A doctor whose handling of the pandemic could flummox observers

A twangy rural Virginian with a racist picture on his medical school yearbook page who proved to Black people that the picture doesn’t reflect what’s really in his very decent heart.

Writing a book is not a bad idea for a guy who’s about to officially clock out and have plenty of free time on his hands. It would be a terrific read — maybe a New York Times a bestseller — because you can’t make up stuff this good.

Call me if you need a good editor.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]