A Q&A with exiting Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam
In November 2021, Gov. Ralph Northam sat down for an interview with Virginia Business, looking back at his eventful four-year term. This is a transcript of the full interview, part of which was used in the January 2022 cover story, “A dramatic shift.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Virginia Business: What gubernatorial accomplishments are you most proud of?
Gov. Ralph Northam: Just generally speaking, since I took office in 2018, our goal has always been to build a Virginia that works better for everyone — no matter who you are, no matter where you’re from. I’m very proud to say that we’ve done just that. As far as our accomplishments, I could talk a lot about what we’ve been able to do, but I think if you ask the average person on the street, “What’s the most important thing to you?” it’s certainly going to be a job that you can support yourself and your family with.
We’ve really focused on our economy. We’ve reached out to a lot of businesses that were growing here in Virginia and also businesses that want to come to Virginia. I just came back from a trip a few days ago to Europe, a [Nov. 7-12, 2021] trade mission. I talked to over 25 companies from five different countries. The enthusiasm, the excitement of companies wanting to come to Virginia is at a level that I’ve never seen and I don’t really think has ever been present.
They like Virginia for a lot of reasons, but certainly, our talented workforce. I had to talk about that in more detail, but we have invested in our world-class education system and companies recognize that. We’ve done so much good work with transportation. We’ve updated our port, put over a billion dollars in investments to dredge the channels, got deeper to 55 feet, and widened it to accommodate the larger ships coming out of the Panama Canal.
We’ve got billions of dollars in the queue for projects throughout Virginia. Transportation projects, a lot in Northern Virginia with the American Legion bridge and the Long Bridge, which is bringing rail and transit into Virginia more efficiently. The 95 coming down through Fredericksburg with the HOT Lanes and then all of the transportation projects in Hampton Roads, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. I could talk more of the details, as much as you want about that.
We’re expanding I-81, expanding [Route] 58 where Lover’s Leap goes through Patrick County, so a lot of transportation. That’s really important to businesses. The fact that we’re moving toward renewable energy is a big deal with companies. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of solar projects going on in Virginia and now our off-shore wind putting out about 188 more wind turbines. We’ve already got two off the coast. I just had a big announcement with Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy in partnership with Dominion.
We’re going to be able to service off-shore wind for all of the East Coast right out of Hampton Roads. That’s billions of dollars that we have now to pick up jobs, and so that’s a big deal. Then, a couple of other things I’ll just mention that we’ve been able to accomplish, but certainly our investment in broadband, that has been a top priority of mine since I’ve been in office. When we came in, see, Virginia was investing less than $4 million a year in broadband. A combination of what we’ve put into the state, what we got from ARPA and the private sector, we’re over $2 billion.
You contrast $4 million four years ago and now investment over $2 billion, and broadband will be universal in Virginia by 2024, so that’s a big deal. Then, health care, obviously, I’m a physician, but I worked hard to make sure that everybody in Virginia had access to affordable and quality health care. We expanded Medicaid and because of that, over 550,000 Virginians now have access to health care, and especially during a pandemic, that’s been really important.
I would say also, when we talk about what I’m proudest of and I have my background in health care, but we followed the science to keep Virginia safe during COVID-19 all while keeping our businesses open and thriving. In addition to our booming economy and it is booming right now, I’m proud that Virginia has been among the lowest case in death rates in the nation and we’re in the top 10 of all states for COVID-19 vaccination.
That didn’t happen in the past because, I think, [federal] leadership didn’t follow the science and the data in making decisions that were certainly difficult at times, but certainly keeping in mind that trying to keep Virginians as safe and healthy as we can. Then, hey, the last thing I would mention, and I’ll be quiet if you want, but I will tell you what it’s so important — and I hear it every day — is the fact that Virginia is a welcome state in terms of inclusion. We’ve done a lot to protect women’s health care in Virginia.
We’ve done a lot to prevent discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Companies have recognized that and they will not go to a state that is not inclusive, a state that doesn’t embrace diversity. I have put Virginia in a really good position. Just to sum things up, companies are excited about coming to Virginia.
VB: Is there anything particular that you have learned during your term, and what do you wish you had more time to do?
Northam: It’s a great question. As you know, I’m a child neurologist, so I believe that there’s power in every child, that every right has the right to a world-class education, and so, Pam, my wife, and I have worked very hard to make sure that three- and four-year-olds in Virginia have access to early childhood education. I don’t think the results of that we’ll be seeing this year or next year, but I think in 20 years from now people will look back and say, “Wow, that was really a big accomplishment.”
We’ve put this template, if you will, in place to make sure that all the children have access. We still need to do some funds for that. I’ll plan on doing that in my 2022 budget. There’s still some work to do there, but I think every child should have access to early childhood education. Then the fact that I ran in 2017 on the G3 program [Get a Skill, Get a Job, Get Ahead community college initiative], and we’ve been able to put that in place.
That has been very successful. A lot of Virginians just go to our community colleges not having to pay tuition and also have costs wrapped around services to include transportation and child care, so that’s a really good program. Since you’re writing for a business magazine, I’ll tell you something that companies really like is our Talent Accelerator Program.
We actually go on-site and see what the requirements are for their employees, and then come back, and we train those employees. When their business starts, they already have the workforce in place. That is something that [Virginia Economic Development Partnership] along with the Virginia Community College System worked on. This is a model for the rest of this country, so that has been very successful.
There are a couple of community colleges that we have as models, but I would like to see on-site quality child care in all of our community colleges in Virginia. A lot of our students that are being trained and retrained for their jobs, it’s really important as they pursue their education to have access to quality and safe child care. That’s something that we’ll continue to work on.
VB: I wanted to go back to February 2019, when the blackface photo in your yearbook was made public. Obviously, that was a tough time and there was a lot of turmoil. Did you ever consider resigning? If you did, what convinced you to stay in office?
Northam: That was a difficult time for Virginia. I am pleased that Virginia stuck with me. I travel around the commonwealth and listen to a lot of people. I’ve learned a lot. I think people have always heard me say, “The more I know, the more I can do.” What I learned, I was able to turn into action and I think, because of that, Virginia is in a much better place.
We’re a welcoming state. We embrace diversity, and we’re inclusive. I think that it was a difficult time for Virginia, but Virginia stuck with me. We’ve been able to learn and build, and we’re in a much better place. I think that’s reflected in our business environment. Like I said, companies want to come to Virginia because we embrace diversity, and we’re inclusive and we’re welcoming.
VB: Was there one particular person who did support you behind the scenes? Because you say Virginia stuck with you, but there were a lot of people who were calling for you to resign. Was there somebody who said, “I’ve got your back,” or just something that really made you feel like you were doing the right thing in that moment?
Northam: I think there were a lot of people that supported me. I think Virginia — I reached out and they were receptive. They supported me, and I think the rest is history.
VB: What do you think was the most important result of this event? How did it change your priorities with regard to legislation or other policies?
Northam: I’ve always been a listener, and equity has always been very important to me. It’s been a top priority of my administration. When this happened, I sat down with my cabinet secretaries. We said we still have a number of inequities in Virginia, whether it be access to health care, access to world-class education, access to business opportunities, access to voting. I asked my cabinet directly to focus on the work that they were doing, and make sure that equity was a large part of that. That’s what they’ve done, and I think that’s why we’ve been as successful as we have.
VB: I had the pleasure of talking to Janice Underwood, Virginia’s — and the nation’s — first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. How important was it that she came on board?
Northam: She’s done a very good job. I oversee over 100,000 state employees, [and] I think it was obvious that this diversity, equity and inclusion needed to be a part of how we govern Virginia. No state has ever had a Cabinet-level position that deals with DEI. We did a job search, and we had over 30 interviews, and we were very satisfied and pleased with Dr. Underwood’s resume. I met with her a couple times before we offered her a job.
She’s come in and started the program, One Virginia Plan. It reaches out into our cabinet secretaries. It reaches out into our agencies here, into our colleges [and] universities, and she has just done an amazing job. Again, as I said earlier, Virginia is a better commonwealth, a better state because of her efforts, and because of our initiatives to make that hire.
VB: Was there one particular person or group that you heard from in 2019 that helped you create policies, maybe something that you hadn’t thought about doing, but you decided it was a high priority for you?
Northam: I pretty much went on a listening tour. I traveled around the commonwealth, met with a lot of groups, and just learned a lot and then I was able to bring that back to Richmond and turn it into action. We’ve put a lot of emphasis, for example, on the disparities in maternal and neonatal health, I’m very proud of that. We’ve offered financial aid to undocumented students. We’ve been working on tribal justice.
VB: I wanted to ask you about the past two years’ legislative agenda. As you’ve noted that Virginia has passed some of the most progressive legislation ever in the South, do you think that that led to the Republicans’ wins in November? Do you think this was a reaction by people who just thought this is too much?
Northam: The measures and the legislations that I’ve led and we passed, it’s what the people of Virginia wanted, and we’re in a better place now.
Probably the toughest day of my four years was when I was called and heard that there was a mass shooting in Virginia Beach.
I got in the car and drove very quickly to Virginia Beach. On my way there, the number of the casualties continued to rise as well as those that were injured. We lost 12 Virginians to that tragedy. As a result, I hope you remember this, I called the legislature back to Richmond for a special session. The Republicans took less than 90 minutes and then adjourned. Nothing was done. Virginians said “enough is enough,” and so we brought back the commonsense gun pieces of legislation. They were passed. That’s a result of listening to what Virginia needed.
Another example, look at the disparities with the use of marijuana. People of color and white Virginians use marijuana at the same rate, but people of color, Black Virginians are three times more likely to get arrested and convicted than white folks are. I pushed hard on that to really deal with that disparity. I’m proud of that.
The death penalty is another example. Virginians said it was time after 400 years that we stop the death penalty in Virginia.
There’s been a lot of examples like that: We listened to Virginians, we took action. I think history will show that Virginia’s a better place. I really don’t think a lot of that had anything to do with the recent election.
VB: What do you think was the reason behind the election results, then?
Northam: It’s part of democracy. What happened is that more people voted for Glenn Youngkin against Terry McAuliffe, and so he’s the governor-elect. That’s what makes our democracy strong and again, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to be able to play Monday morning quarterback.
I will say that history will show that these four years that we have been in office here has been probably the most successful administration in Virginia history. That is a testament to the tremendous team that I’ve been able to put together.
VB: Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over a lot of your term. What was the most difficult part of dealing with that and communicating to Virginians how to stay safe?
Northam: As a doctor, I follow the science in keeping children safe during COVID-19. I followed the data, and Virginia is one of the top states. We have one of the lowest case [rates] and the lowest death rates. I look at the numbers every day,. We’re having around 1,400 to 1,500 new cases a day, and 30 to 35 deaths per day.
I’ll repeat that, 30 to 35 people in Virginia are dying every day because of COVID-19, and it is totally avoidable. We have worked so hard to make sure that we have [personal protective equipment] in Virginia. We’ve worked hard to make sure that we have testing capability. Now, we have three safe and effective vaccines — the Moderna, the J&J and the Pfizer — and we have done everything that we can to make sure that we’ve taken the vaccines to the people of Virginia.
There are a number of individuals that have said, “No, I don’t want to get vaccinated. I don’t want to wear a mask. I don’t want my children wearing masks in school.” That’s been one of my largest frustrations. 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 everybody would look at this like a biological war, which is really what it is.
It’s not between people, it’s between us and a virus, and the science is clear. People need to roll up their sleeves and get the shot, and then we can put this behind us. That’s been a frustration for me.
VB: You’ve talked about your own COVID case from September 2020 and not being able to smell or taste. Is that still the case? Do you think those senses are ever going to come back?
Northam: Yes. [laughs] If I had a crystal ball, maybe it would be helpful.
It’s a little bit more complicated than “can’t smell and can’t taste.” I can smell a little bit, but it’s not normal. I don’t want to get into all those medical reasons for that. Now, my taste has been affected as well. The bottom line is that I’m still alive, thankfully. It could have been a lot worse. I’m dealing with that, it’s not a big problem.
I just would encourage everybody else out there, don’t take the chance or you’ll lose your smell or your taste or have other long-term COVID side effects. Or worst-case scenario, you could die.
That would be my encouragement, to get out there and get vaccinated and put this behind us.
VB: Have you gotten your booster?
Northam: I have. My initial shot was the J&J, which you probably know is a one-time shot, and then a couple of weeks ago, when it was available, I got the Moderna booster. I would encourage all parents to have their children, 5 and above, vaccinated.
VB: What are your plans after leaving office?
Northam: Back in the late ’90s, I co-founded and I’m a co-owner of a group called Children’s Specialty Group [in Norfolk]. We started with about 30 pediatric sub-specialists, and I’m a child neurologist. We have pulmonologists, cardiologists, hematologists. Now, we’ve grown our group to about 100 pediatric sub-specialists. We employed around 250 people, so I’ll go back to patients. In January, I’ll go back and join my practice.
VB: The presidency of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, your medical school, is open. Have you thought about it?
Northam: Well, I’m focused right now on getting back to my practice. There’s a lot of children out there with neurological issues that hopefully could use my services. I’m looking forward to going back to my practice, working with the children and their families.
VB: We haven’t even touched on Amazon, but HQ2 was a huge deal during your term. What do you think will be the biggest impact of that deal? Are there any other economic development projects that happened during your term that you think will impact business in Virginia in coming decades, maybe something that was lower profile than Amazon?
Northam: Just two days ago, I was at National Landing Park [in Arlington] to celebrate the three-year anniversary of Amazon choosing Virginia as its next home. They have literally transformed Crystal City, which is now National Landing. It’s just amazing to see what is done for Virginia’s economy. When we negotiated that deal, 70% of the incentive package [for] Amazon goes right back in investment in Virginia.
We knew this was going to be necessary; a lot of it is going back into workforce development. There [will be] 31,000 additional degrees in higher education in computer science and technology, which is the groundbreaking for the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus. To keep that pipeline open between the education system and the business sector is really important. A lot of those individuals will probably work for Amazon, but it’s not required, so they can work in a lot of businesses.
A large part of that 70% investment was in infrastructure in that area and also affordable housing. We have made a lot of progress — and still [have] a lot of work to do — but we made a lot of progress making sure that people have a roof over their heads, especially during COVID-19 with our Rent Relief Program.
When we talk about the site development — the permitting, the utilities, the energy, the transportation, all of those things that go into site development — we really have to continue to focus on affordable housing.
We just had that announcement in Wythe County that we’re adding 2,500 employees to a company that makes nitrile gloves. When you say, “Well, that sounds good, but those people need a place to live,” part of that site development has to be in planning for affordable housing, and I think we have a good recipe for that.
Overall, again, just to summarize things, Virginia is doing very well right now, and I’m proud of this work that we’ve been able to do. When I turn the keys over in January, I can promise you the new government [will have] financial reserves and the largest surplus in history, a booming economy with more job opportunities than ever before, and public housing. This is important; housing policies have made Virginia the most welcome and inclusive state in this country.
VB: What do you think your enduring legacy will be?
Northam: I think, as I said earlier, it’s been my goal to just really build a Virginia that works better for everyone no matter who you are or where you’re from, and so that’s overall what I’m proud of. I’m proud of the team that we put together way back during transition. My cabinet secretaries are so talented. They’ve done so much good work. It’s also the most diverse cabinet in the history of Virginia and a majority of women, so [I’m] very proud of that.
All the other things that we’ve been able to do in Virginia, I don’t know if I’d rank them one higher than the other, but again, just making a Virginia that works better for everyone. That’s what we’re proud of.
VB: I wanted to ask you about VMI and the investigation into racism and sexual harassment there. How are you feeling about that process?
Northam: I think the mission of VMI is [as] important today than it ever has been to train citizen soldiers that embrace integrity and dignity and honor, and, obviously, it’s what gave me the foundation that I’ve built my life on.
I am pleased with the new superintendent, [retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins]. He has tremendous vision. He’s obviously an alumnus, a wonderful military career.
He is working very closely with the Board of Visitors, and they have great vision and realize that the school has to reflect who we serve. They get that, and they are making VMI a more welcoming, more inclusive school, and so I think VMI is better for that. I’m very proud of the work that has been done and will continue to be done.
VB: Do you think that the students and alumni have bought into it?
Northam: No question.
VB: Is there anything else you want to talk about?
Northam: I’ve already spoken to this just a little bit, but I think this administration is probably, in the history of Virginia, the most progressive and also the most successful in Virginia history. At the same time, our economy is doing better than it has ever done. It’s proof that you can have both. We can have a progressive plan and administration, and we can have an economy that’s doing excessively well. I think that would be the legacy that I’ll leave behind.
VB: Is there anything that you wish to say to Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, any advice that you want to give him?
Northam: I’ve had a couple of really productive meetings with Gov.-elect Youngkin, and I’m really not one to give advice. I answer and I listen, answer the questions, but I’m confident that he will lead Virginia well.