A dramatic shift
Gov. Ralph Northam’s tenure was progressive, eventful
Four years ago, no one would have guessed Gov. Ralph Northam would lead the most progressive Virginia administration in modern memory.
A native of Onancock on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, as well as a pediatric neurologist and Army veteran, Virginia’s 73rd governor was eyed by some Democrats with suspicion after acknowledging he’d voted twice for President George W. Bush and had been courted by Republicans to switch parties while serving in the Virginia Senate.
As Northam prepares to hand over the Executive Mansion’s keys to Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin on Jan. 15, he leaves behind a legacy of governing amid a deadly global pandemic and perhaps the most racially tumultuous period in decades.
And his tenure as governor almost ended barely a year into his term.
The date everything changed was Feb. 1, 2019. In the middle of the General Assembly session, a photo from Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook pages depicting a person in blackface and a second person wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe first appeared on a right-wing website. Northam quickly apologized in a video statement, acknowledging he was in the photo, although he did not specify which person was him.
State and national news media crowded into the marble halls of the Virginia State Capitol, waiting for the governor to resign in disgrace. State lawmakers issued statements condemning the photo. Former Democratic Govs. Terry McAuliffe, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner all called for Northam’s resignation. Rumors flew among state government workers and politicos that the governor would be stepping down imminently.
The day after his first statement, however, Northam held a press conference, this time denying he was in the yearbook photo but acknowledging a separate occasion during which he wore blackface dressed as Michael Jackson for a party. First lady Pamela Northam prevented the governor from demonstrating his moonwalking skills for the assembled media.
Amid the political pressure, it didn’t appear there was any path forward for Northam to remain in office — but stay he did, due to a confluence of events.
“I am pleased that Virginia stuck with me,” Northam says.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. Without a separate set of circumstances, Northam would likely have been a goner.
Pressure continued to mount for Northam to resign, which would have seen Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax ascend to governor. However, in the days that followed, two women made sexual assault accusations against Fairfax, charges he denies. As it looked like Fairfax too might resign, the chaos surrounding Virginia’s top Democrats continued. Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface at a University of Virginia Halloween party in the 1980s.
That bought Northam extra time.
He turned to Black clergy members and other community members, meeting with them in private to listen and learn over the next couple of months.
“I reached out, and they were receptive,” Northam says. “They supported me, and I think the rest is history.”
Depending on one’s political point of view, Northam either went on to earn Virginia a reputation as the most liberal state in the South through a sincere effort to make amends, or he made a dramatic, two-year effort to rescue his political career and authored his own party’s losses in November 2021.
Cheryl Ivey Green, the executive minister of the First Baptist Church of South Richmond, recalls meeting with Northam during that early period as part of a clergy group. Northam was “refreshingly honest about what happened,” she recalls. “What he made was a commitment to make it right and do right.”
Green is the chair of the Virginia African American Advisory Board, which Northam created in March 2019 to advise him on areas of interest to Black Virginians, particularly education, health care, public safety, criminal justice and issues impacting small, Black-owned businesses. Green says she doesn’t know if the governor would have focused as much attention on Black concerns if not for the scandal — possibly because as a white man, he had not encountered racism on a personal level.
“When God opens a window because of an issue called ‘blackface’ or whatever, it’s used to open doors for things people like me have been fighting for for years,” Green says. “I’m just grateful he used that, but it took great courage to say, ‘I want to do right.’”
In May 2019, Northam created the nation’s first state cabinet-level post to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion within state government, tapping Janice Underwood in September 2019 as the state’s inaugural chief diversity officer, a position now preserved in Virginia code.
Tragedy, and a shift
Northam did not reemerge publicly in a prominent way until Memorial Day weekend 2019, when a gunman shot 16 people, killing 12, at the Virginia Beach municipal building. Police shot and killed DeWayne Craddock in a prolonged gunfight 35 minutes after the first shots were fired.
That was probably “the toughest day of my four years,” recounts the governor. “I got in the car and drove very quickly to Virginia Beach. On my way there, the numbers of the casualties continued to rise, as well as those that were injured.”
In assuming the familiar role of comforter-in-chief, Northam was able to place his blackface scandal on the back burner. He quickly called the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and the Democratic-controlled state Senate back to Richmond for a special session to enact gun control legislation.
“The Republicans took less than 90 minutes and then adjourned,” Northam says matter-of-factly. “Nothing was done.”
In November 2019, in what Northam attributes to voters saying, “enough is enough,” Democrats won control of the state House for the first time in nearly three decades — although the victory also was likely a reaction to the deeply scorned Trump White House and demographic shifts toward younger, more liberal and racially diverse populations in Northern Virginia.
Led by a previously moderate governor who was indebted to Black leaders who had supported him following the scandal, Democrats in the General Assembly had the power to pass a slate of the most progressive legislation ever seen in Virginia.
Within two years, personal possession of marijuana was legalized, the death penalty was banned, the state created its own voting rights act, minimum hourly wages rose, and abortion restrictions were rolled back. Northam also declared he would remove the state-owned monument to Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, calling it a relic of the Jim Crow era and a symbol of white supremacy. He also launched a state investigation into racist incidents at his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, following investigative news reports in 2020.
Republican Del. Todd Gilbert, who will become speaker of the House this month after two years of Democratic control, says Northam and state Democrats overreached with their agenda, contributing to Republicans’ dramatic statewide sweep in the November 2021 elections.
A “very cordial” relationship between Republicans and Democrats at the start of Northam’s term “abruptly ended on that day when the revelations of the blackface [photo] occurred, and I don’t know that I’ve spoken to [Northam] since,” Gilbert says.
“There were things that I would never [have] thought that a more middle-of-the-road Gov. Northam would have signed into law, that he was more than willing to sign into law to try and rehabilitate his image,” Gilbert adds. “Pretty much anything that the progressive left was feeding to him, he was putting pen to paper and making it the law of Virginia.”
Northam, predictably, takes a different view, declining to analyze the reasons behind his party’s losses.
“It’s part of democracy,” he says. “More people voted for Glenn Youngkin against Terry McAuliffe, and so he’s the governor-elect. I’ve had a couple of really productive meetings with Gov.-elect Youngkin. I’m confident that he will lead Virginia well.”
Shutdown in Virginia
It’s possible that Northam and state Democrats would have made even more progressive strides if not for the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting economic crisis. In March 2020, when Virginia recorded its first coronavirus cases, Northam took on a new role as public health leader.
In daily news conferences, Northam reported the commonwealth’s latest case numbers and death statistics and issued a series of executive orders aimed at limiting the spread of the virus. Social distancing and mask mandates encountered some pushback, typically from Republicans following the lead of President Donald Trump, who had declared the country would be back to normal by Easter 2020. By contrast, Northam was cautious, ordering broad shutdowns of schools and “nonessential” businesses through early June.
In September 2020, Northam and first lady Pam Northam contracted COVID-19. The governor says his sense of smell has returned a “little bit, but it’s not normal,” and his sense of taste is still dulled. “The bottom line … is that I’m still alive, thankfully. It could have been a lot worse.”
Although vaccines received federal approval in fall 2020, and vaccination of frontline medical workers started in December 2020, Virginia and other states hit a severe vaccine bottleneck in January 2021. Northam had just declared that doses would be made available to everyone age 65 or older, relying on a promised federal stockpile of vaccine doses that did not materialize. The governor unexpectedly found Virginia ranked last in the nation in vaccine administration efficiency.
“We were really supply-constrained,” recalls Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator.
In early January 2021, Northam “called us into the situation room” to discuss the problem, Avula recalls. The Virginia Department of Health “was not going to solve this on its own but needed the breadth of government.” Avula remembers the governor saying that “this had to be an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
By March 2021, the supply problem eased, only to be replaced with a growing unwillingness of some people to get vaccinated.
If there was one thing that rankled the governor publicly, it was outright opposition — primarily on the part of Republicans — to wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Northam saw it as a deadly politicization of a health crisis that has resulted in the deaths of more than 800,000 Americans in less than two years.
The usually mild-mannered Northam would sometimes call people who flouted COVID mitigation measures “selfish” during news conferences, saying they were putting health care workers and the general public at risk.
Even in November 2021, when Virginia was ranked No. 10 out of the 50 states for percentage of its population who were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, Northam was still frustrated that 30 to 35 Virginians were dying per day, a “totally avoidable” toll, he says.
“Virginia has done well, but we probably could have had this pandemic in the rearview mirror if everybody would be part of the solution, if everyone would look at this like a biological war, which is really what it is.”
Even amid the pandemic, the blackface controversy and the Democrats’ progressive agenda, one recent feature of Virginia politics remained steady through Northam’s term: economic development wins.
In November 2018, Amazon.com Inc. announced it would be locating its $2.5 billion-plus East Coast HQ2 headquarters in Arlington, bringing approximately 25,000 jobs. CNBC cited the deal in 2019 while anointing Virginia as its Top State for Business, an achievement Virginia repeated in 2021 after a one-year postponement in the rankings due to the pandemic. A plethora of big deals from Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Siemens Gamesa and other major corporations followed.
Stephen Moret, who was president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership from January 2017 through December 2021, says Northam was always willing to meet with business executives to seal economic development deals, and the governor’s cabinet members were particularly accessible.
Northam also invested heavily in workforce training, including the state’s Tech Talent Investment Program to produce more than 31,000 computer engineering and science graduates over 20 years, and VEDP’s Virginia Talent Accelerator Program, a collaboration with the Virginia Community College System to provide free job training and assistance for companies locating or expanding in the commonwealth.
“I always found [Northam] to be smart and thoughtful,” Moret says, adding that, unlike some political leaders, Northam was willing to share credit for successes. “Governors love to make the announcements, but a lot of people contribute to these projects. I see his legacy as a combination of commitment to rural Virginia — particularly broadband access — and his support for major advances in talent development.”
Northam, who plans to return to his medical practice in Norfolk after his term ends, takes pride that his administration was “probably, in the history of Virginia, the most progressive and also the most successful. Our economy is doing better than it has ever done. It’s proof that you can have both. I think that would be the legacy that I’ll leave behind.”