Q&A: Ralph Northam Aims For the Governor’s Mansion in Virginia

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam speaks to the media during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond. 

The Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary race between Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello provides the biggest political test yet for the Democratic Party forces that have been mobilized by President Donald Trump’s assault on American political norms.

Northam is a ten-year veteran of Virginia politics, with deep ties to the state’s political establishment. He has received endorsements from term-limited Governor Terry McAuliffe, Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and dozens of state legislators. The pediatric neurologist has spent his decade-long political career showcasing himself as a fiscal conservative and social liberal.

But Trump’s victory and the surprise appearance of primary challenger Perriello has upended the Virginia Democratic Party and complicated Northam’s once smooth path to the top slot on the Democratic ticket. (Last month, the Prospect sat down with Perriello, who outlined his “insider pragmatism and outsider populism.”)

The lieutenant governor could not campaign or fundraise from early January until late February, which allowed Perriello to gain some traction. Recent polls show that two candidates are running neck and neck, with many Democrats still undecided. Northam and Perriello met in Fairfax County last week for a largely cordial debate, the first of five scheduled before the Democratic primary on June 13. The general election is November 7.

The Prospect talked with Northam before the debate about his Virginia political allegiances, abortion, “dark money” in politics, and Medicaid expansion. What follows is a condensed and edited version of that interview.

Manuel Madrid: Earlier this week, Senator Elizabeth Warren endorsed Tom Perriello. He has also gained the support of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. But you’ve been endorsed by a large number of Virginia Democrats. What do you make of that?

Ralph Northam: First of all, I was surprised that Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders never really reached out and got to know me. They made that choice without talking to me. But what you see more in Virginia is that I have unwavering support from not only the grassroots, but from Governor Terry McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark Herring, Senators Warner and Kaine, every Democratic state senator, and every Democratic delegate [in the Virginia General Assembly].

Another thing I would add is that there’s a tremendous amount of anti-Trump and anti-Washington sentiment right now. I’m a pediatric neurologist—so this is a neurological diagnosis—and I have referred to Trump as a “narcissistic maniac.” We don’t need his influence, his hatred and his bigotry, and his recklessness influencing Virginia. That’s what this election is about—it’s about Virginia.

With all of the endorsements from state leaders, you’ve been described in the news media as the “establishment candidate.” Your opponent positions himself as an outsider, much like Senator Bernie Sanders. What do you make of these labels? 

I’ve been in the public service in Virginia for ten years. If we’re going to talk about an establishment, I’m part of the Virginia establishment. My opponent is part of the outside-of-Virginia establishment. This is a Virginia election, and I’d much rather have the support of Virginians.

You recently denounced “dark money” in Virginia elections and stressed the differences between your campaign and Perriello’s in out-of-state fundraising. The Virginia Public Access Project found that 57 percent of out-of-state donations went to Perriello, while 11 percent went to your campaign. The Perriello campaign has said that you’ve received donations from the energy company Dominion Power. What would you say to environmentally conscious voters who frown on Dominion Power’s influence in state politics?

I do not let contributions influence my decision-making. I took on the tobacco industry in the first year after I was elected. There’s a tremendous amount of influence from the tobacco industry in Virginia. I introduced legislation to ban smoking in restaurants. My record is for standing up for the principles and values that are right for Virginia.

What else needs fixing in Virginia’s campaign-finance system?

The first thing is we need to have a nonpartisan redistricting. We need to get rid of the gerrymandering in Virginia and make our districts fair so that voters are picking their representatives, rather than politicians picking their voters, which is the way it is now. I introduced legislation for nonpartisan redistricting in the Senate. When I ran in ’07 there were 140 seats, 100 delegates, and 40 senators. Only 17 of them were competitive. That’s not what democracy is all about.

We need fair representation. After we do that, then we can tackle campaign-finance reform. I’m a physician, and before I started practicing medicine, [pharmaceutical companies] were taking doctors on trips, to fancy restaurants, etc. [Now] medical ethics has evolved to the point that now I don’t even take a writing pen from a pharmaceutical company.

I would like to lead the discussion on campaign-finance reform and do just what we did in medicine: Get the money out of it; get the influence out of it. We also need limits on contributions. The sky’s currently the limit in Virginia—that opens up a process for imbalanced influence.

In April, Senator Sanders got some heat from Democratic progressives for endorsing pro-life Democrat Heath Mello who is running for mayor of Omaha. Should the Democratic Party endorse pro-life candidates?

No. I feel very strongly that the decision to have an abortion is one that should be made between a woman and her partner and her provider. I have never wavered on that. That is a large contrast between myself and my opponent. That’s why I have the support of NARAL and Planned Parenthood. My opponent voted for the Stupak amendment. That essentially threw women under the bus. It said that they didn’t have access to abortion. That’s why I have grassroots support. People know that I’ve led the fight in that battle.

We’ve had pieces of legislation [in Virginia] like the transvaginal ultrasound bill. I led the fight against that. We’ve had the “personhood” bill. I also led that fight. We’ve had attempts to shut down our women’s reproductive clinics across Virginia through TRAP laws. I fought against those. We’ve had a 20-week abortion ban. I fought against that. We’ve had a piece of legislation to require women to report miscarriages to the police. I also fought against that.

This is not an issue that someone should stick their finger up and see which way the political winds are blowing. This is very, very important to women. It’s important for them to have reproductive freedom—that gives them economic freedom.

In a 2007 state Senate race, you beat a two-time Republican incumbent while running on a pro-choice platform. How did you win?

By sitting down and listening to people, hearing what they were saying, and then telling them that an abortion is a decision between a woman, her partner, and her provider. I told them that there was no excuse that a legislature, that is mostly made up of men, should be telling women what they should and shouldn’t be doing. It’s all about listening. It’s about communicating and educating folks, especially in rural Virginia. I am from rural Virginia, and I can speak their language. That’s something that Democrats, my party, need to be effective at doing.

When you compare the platforms of both parties, Democrats have concrete social policies that could help reduce abortion rates. Do you think that Democrats should emphasize these policies more often? Did you mention them in your state Senate campaign?

Absolutely, and we have. If we can sit down at a table and agree that the less abortions we have, the less unintended pregnancies we have, then we can go ahead and make progress after that. So, the Democratic position and my position has always been: If we want to lessen the number of abortions and unintended pregnancies, we do that through education, and we do it through access to women’s reproductive health care.

Just this year, I tried to use $6 million in TANF [funds] to increase accesss to [long-acting reversible contraceptives]The Republicans blocked it, but it’s through measures like that that you move forward and decrease the number of abortions and unintended pregnancies. You don’t do it by producing legislation such as the transvaginal ultrasound, which is designed to do nothing more than to shame women when they make the decision to have an abortion.

You and Governor McAuliffe have both been vocal proponents of expanding Medicaid. Virginia Republicans continue to reject expansion. How would you address that impasse?

That’s something that Governor McAuliffe and Attorney General Herring and I have worked on since we were eligible to expand Medicaid. No family should be one medical illness away from financial demise. That’s what we are doing to Virginians right now by not expanding Medicaid. There are close to 400,000 working—and I would underline the word working—Virginians who don’t have access to health care. They end up receiving their care in the emergency room. It is not the place for preventative care. It’s very expensive.

Every day that Virginia doesn’t expand Medicaid, we’re not only leaving it on the table, but we’re giving to other states we compete with over $5 million a day. Since January 2014, we’ve given up [billions] to surrounding states. That’s money that we’ll never get back. Let’s talk about it from a business perspective. We’re fiscally responsible in Virginia; that means that we balance our budget each year. When we’re giving away billions of dollars, that’s just not a good business decision. I have the relationships in Richmond. I know all 140 legislators. I will bring them to the table and let them know how important this is.

How would you respond to stepped up raids and deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)?

I’ll work side by side with our attorney general to make sure that ICE is not overstepping their bounds, [so] that people, especially immigrants, in Virginia aren’t living in fear. Something that we are very proud of in Virginia is that we are inclusive. Our lights are on; our doors are open. We will stand up against ICE. We will do everything we can to make sure immigrants are comfortable living here.

You’ve talked about disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline: Would you consider decriminalizing marijuana?

Yes. I announced a criminal-justice reform package, and one of the things at the top of the list was to decriminalize marijuana. There are far too many individuals who are being arrested and locked up for that. We spend $67 million a year enforcing our marijuana laws. African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to get picked up and arrested and put in jail for smoking marijuana. So, that’s a top priority of mine.

I would also say that, as a doctor, that step of decriminalizing marijuana needs to take place so that we can look at using marijuana for medicinal purposes. I led the fight two years ago to use what we call cannabidiol. It’s an oil that comes from marijuana, and we use it in intractable epilepsy, which are seizures. There are a lot of potential uses for marijuana medicinally. To be able to decriminalize it and then use evidence-based medicine to move forward—that’s very important.

Do you think you’re more prepared to work with Republicans?

It’s very important to have relationships and have a good open line of communication. I feel very strongly about my Democratic and progressive values, but I’m also open-minded, and again, that’s my reputation in Richmond. Let me tell you two areas that I think we can make significant progress by working in a bipartisan manner.

First, we need to make our tax code in Virginia simpler, more progressive, and fairer. From an economic development point of view, the job of a governor, and the legislature, is to not only help businesses grow that are already in Virginia, but also help attract new businesses and new manufacturers. We have to have a tax code that’s competitive other states. If we don’t, these businesses and manufacturers are going to choose to go elsewhere. I plan to start a commission on comprehensive tax reform, get a plan on the table, and then talk to Democrats and Republicans to move that forward.

The second area that is extremely important, especially for [Northern Virginia], is Metro and transportation. Our Metro system has had decreased ridership, there have been issues with management, issues with transparency, issues with safety, and issues with how to fund Metro. That is going to take a leader who can bring people to the table and say, You know what? Virginia needs to be at the table with Maryland and Washington, D.C., and come up with a source of revenue to adequately fund metro. The economy cannot continue to grow in [Northern Virginia] unless we fix Metro.

How would you sum up what sets you apart from Tom Perriello?

I’m able to win statewide and I’m able to win not only in metropolitan areas, but in rural Virginia. I started that process back in 2007, when I ran in a very conservative district against an eight-year incumbent. In my 2013 election, I had the highest number of votes for any candidate in an off-year Virginia election in history. I have a proven track record of winning, and that’s what I plan to do this year.

Another area is that I have fought for progressive Democratic values since I have been in office. I have always stood up for the values of access to women’s reproductive health care, to marriage equality, to responsible gun ownership, and being a good steward of the environment. Those are my values that I have won in the past and I will this year. They have been unwavering.

The last thing I would say that contrasts us is my relationships in Richmond. In order to get things done in Virginia, you have to be able to build relationships, you have to be able to communicate, and you have to be able to work with people on both sides of the aisle. That’s been my track record. A governor has only four years. You have to hit the ground running and have a vision for where you want to take Virginia and then get it done because four years go by very quickly. 

This article has been updated. 

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