A unifying force?
Northam expects to build on relationships with legislators from both parties
Gov.-elect Ralph Northam is no stranger to the General Assembly.
And his laid-back style and and legislative experience could help a divided legislature find compromises. “It’s an opportunity for someone that has good relationships on both sides of the
aisle to really come in and talk about some of the challenges that we have in Virginia and make a lot of progress,” says Northam, a Democrat who served in the state Senate for six years in a district that includes his native Eastern Shore. He became lieutenant governor in 2014.
Northam may be the opposite of the Energizer Bunny-like personality of outgoing Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. But that doesn’t mean Northam is any less ambitious. “It wasn’t that long ago that Virginia was the No. 1 state in the country to do business,” he says. “And I would really like it again as No. 1 in my four years.”
His major legislative initiatives include universal broadband, rural economic development, free community college and efforts to address the opioid addiction crisis. Northam also sees the possibility of finding a unique solution for Medicaid expansion in Virginia, McAuliffe’s major unfulfilled goal. “I’d like to design a system where we can bring those resources back to Virginia and then put them into the private sector,” he says.
Virginia Business met with Northam in his transition offices on Capitol Square in early December. Following is an edited transcript of the discussion.
Virginia Business: The relationship between the General Assembly and the McAuliffe administration has often been rocky. Obviously you’ll have a different makeup of the legislature, but how do you think you’ll be able to improve that relationship?
Northam: First of all, I think he’s really been the right person at the right time for Virginia. He started four years ago to build the new Virginia economy. It has been very successful, bringing in over 210,000 new jobs. The unemployment rate has gone from 5.4 to 3.6 percent… I think the one thing I bring to the table that he didn’t have the advantage of is that I’ve been here [in the legislature] for 10 years… And so, it’s an opportunity for someone that has good relationships on both sides of the aisle to really come in and talk about some of the challenges that we have in Virginia and make a lot of progress.
VB: He’s also been a very aggressive salesman for Virginia. How do you see continuing that?
Northam: The top priority of the governor’s job is to promote our economy and to be an ambassador for Virginia. And so I will continue to do that. My No. 1 priority is economic development and especially workforce development, and it wasn’t that long ago that Virginia was the No. 1 state in the country to do business. And I would really like it again as No. 1 in my four years…
VB: You mentioned workforce development, and your G3 [workforce] plan goes along with that. Can you explain how you are thinking that would work?
Northam: I think that the main goal of workforce development is to understand what the jobs of the 21st century are. They’re what I call STEAM-H, related to science, technology, engineering, the arts, math and health care. So, things like cybersecurity, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, data collection, data analysis. Our job is to recognize what those jobs are and especially recognize them by region…. And so there’s got to be good communication between the business community and the public sector, and we want to make sure that our colleges and universities are affordable.
Part of my plan is the G3 program which is “get skilled, get a job and give back.” That will allow individuals to go to community colleges without incurring any debt with the understanding that once they become certified, they’ll give back a year with pay to either public service or in a high-demand area or a high-demand job in Virginia. There are a lot of jobs that you don’t necessarily need a four-year college education for. …It would be an initial investment by the state. And, after five years, we’ve done the numbers on this, it would actually pay for itself by people having higher-paying jobs that would then bring more revenue back into state coffers…
VB: [Being from the Eastern Shore], you obviously have experience with rural regions. How do we grow the economies of the rural regions?
Northam: If you look to the Eastern Shore or the Southside or the Southwest, the unemployment rate is nowhere close to that 3.6 percent [for the entire state]. One of my top priorities is broadband. We have to have universal broadband in Virginia to help businesses grow and also to help new businesses start and grow and also to help educate our children…
Also, if you look at the college towns and cities we have in Virginia — like Harrisonburg, Charlottesville and Blacksburg — they’ve done a really good job by recruiting talent through their universities, and with that comes research and development opportunities and grant opportunities and then business opportunities. [I’ve had discussions with universities in Virginia’s rural regions to expand their programs to drive economic development.]
VB: As far as Medicaid expansion, do see a way forward?
Northam: I’d like to design a system where we can bring those resources back to Virginia and then put them into the private sector. So I do think there’s an opportunity to talk with folks from both sides of the aisle and make sure they understand why health care is important, especially to rural Virginia. [We’ve had two hospitals close in Patrick and Lee counties.] So, we have got to make health care a priority because, when businesses are looking to locate to Virginia, they want to make sure that their employees are taken care of — with workforce development, with education for their children and access to health care. We have challenges with mental health. We have challenges with the opioid crisis. And there are consequences to limited resources. And when Virginia is in a position where we’re not only leaving on the table but giving away to other states, who we compete with, over $6 million per day [in federal money for Medicaid], I’m going to make a case that we need to bring that money back to Virginia.
VB: Do you support an increase in the minimum wage?
Northam: I think it will be done incrementally at the end of the day. There’s no way an individual can support themselves or their families on $7.25 an hour. That’s something that I ran on during our campaign, and I think it was well received…
VB: What are your plans on addressing the opioid crisis?
Northam: We lost over 1,100 Virginians last year to opioid overdose. It’s a crisis … We’ve got to really encourage our health-care professionals that there are different, more innovative ways of treating both acute and chronic pain. So, we’ve been overprescribing narcotics. But for those that are already addicted that need help, we need more resources. We just put $30 million into our budget this past year to work with our [Community Services Boards] and make sure that individuals have same-day access when they need it for addiction. Also, now individuals that are at risk can go into a pharmacy and ask for a dose of Naloxone, which will reverse the deadly side effects.
VB: Anything else important to note?
Northam: I am a veteran, and we have worked very hard over the last four years to make sure that Virginia is the most veteran-friendly state in the country. We also had the V3 program: Virginia Values Veterans. We’re close to having hired 30,000 veterans over the past four years, and I’d like to double that in the next four years so.
Also, I am a large advocate and proponent of renewable energy, and I would like by 2030 for 30 percent or more of our energy to come from renewable energy here in the commonwealth. So I’m going to work very diligently to promote solar and wind hydroelectricity and other means of energy other than fossil fuel.