RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Despite a devastating election season for Virginia Democrats, Governor Ralph Northam doesn’t believe voters were rejecting his leadership when they went to the polls last month.
Sitting down for a one-on-one interview as he prepares to leave office, Governor Northam reflected on his accomplishments and missteps over the last four years. In Virginia, governors are prohibited from serving two consecutive terms.
Northam ran as a steady hand and a unifying force with President Donald Trump in office. While Northam said his biggest accomplishment was the bipartisan push to expand healthcare access, he also found himself steering the Commonwealth through notably divisive policy debates, scandals and an unprecedented health crisis.
Asked if a Republican sweep of statewide offices could be evidence that his administration went too far and misread its mandate, Northam said, “I don’t think we talked about what we’ve done as Democrats in Virginia enough during the past election. It became nationalized.”
“To be a progressive state and to also have the best economy that Virginia has ever seen, that is something that we as Democrats need to talk more about,” Northam added.
Northam spent much of 2019 on defense, deflecting calls for resignation after being accused of appearing in a racist yearbook photo featuring a person dressed in a KKK robe and another in blackface. Northam initially apologized and then claimed he actually wasn’t in the photo.
“That was a very difficult time for Virginia and I regret that,” Northam said. “As a result of what happened in February 2019, I’ve learned a lot. I’m a better person and I think we have been able to put a lot of focus on things that we might not have done.”
In some ways, the controversy changed the trajectory of his term by putting inequities into sharp focus, according to Northam.
Virginia later became the first state in the south to end the death penalty and legalize recreational marijuana possession. Northam argued the state’s prior policies disproportionately criminalized people of color.
As racial justice demonstrations raged on in Richmond in 2020, Northam ordered the removal of the towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Northam also backed a package of police reforms, including bans on no-knock warrants and chokeholds. On the other hand, Northam never fully embraced calls to end qualified immunity for police officers and, instead of defunding the police, the governor proposed big raises for law enforcement in his outgoing two-year budget.
“I think we can continue to support law enforcement. It’s very important that our streets and communities are safe but with that comes accountability and I think a lot of the legislation that we introduced and passed addresses accountability,” Northam said.
While managing the response to racial unrest, the nation’s only “doctor governor” was grappling with a health crisis and economic collapse. The pandemic thrust Northam into controversy over public health restrictions, school closures and overburdened social safety nets.
Virginia’s finances have since rebounded to record highs but the new omicron variant is prompting some to reinstate COVID-19 restrictions, including indoor mask mandates. Asked if it’s the right time to take that step, Northam said, “That’s a very difficult law to enforce and so it’s strongly encouraged and that’s the approach we’ll continue to take.”
Before face coverings became a common sight, a tragic mass shooting in Virginia Beach triggered an initially unsuccessful push for gun violence prevention.
Despite an outpouring of opposition once Democrats took control of the General Assembly, Northam signed nearly all of the party’s gun control bills into law, including a one-handgun-per-month limit, expanded background checks and a red flag law.
“We didn’t have the votes we needed in the Senate to pass a law banning assault weapons. Hopefully in the future we will and we can get those off our streets because I don’t think there is any need for them,” Northam said.
That won’t happen anytime soon. With Republican Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin taking over next month, Northam is rolling out the welcome mat.
“I hope Americans will contrast the way that we dealt with our transition compared to what happened in Washington. Especially as a veteran, it was an embarrassment,” Northam said. “I want Governor Youngkin to be successful because, if he is successful, then Virginia will be successful.”
Northam said he is planning to start seeing patients again at his pediatric practice the Monday following the Jan. 15 Inauguration Ceremony.
Asked if this marks the end of his political career, Northam said, “I doubt you’ll see my name on the ballot again but never say never.”