Ralph Northam: Planting seeds in 2017 Virginia governor race

ralph northamThe world has changed since Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam was the first to throw his hat into the ring for the 2017 Virginia governor race.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist and Eastern Shore native, declared his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination in 2015.

Seems like a long time ago now, 2015. Barack Obama was finishing his second term in the White House, Hillary Clinton seemed poised to break the glass ceiling, and the road to the party nomination for Northam seemed clear of any traffic.

You know what’s happened since.

The 2016 campaign was about Hillary vs. Bernie, then Hillary vs. Trump, who nobody, not even Trump, thought could or would win, and then he did.

Then former Fifth District Congressman Tom Perriello entered the Democratic Party gubernatorial nomination race.

The clear path to the nomination: gone.

The political world: turned upside down.

Northam is now engaged in a tight race for the party nomination with Perriello. A new Christopher Newport University poll has the race a dead heat, with Perriello surging in recent weeks from a double-digit deficit that he had faced upon first entering the campaign.

And there’s Trump and the sea change in Washington with Republicans feverishly trying to undo eight years of work in the Obama era in key areas like the environment and healthcare.

Northam, talking with me on Thursday for our Street Knowledge podcast, did his best to spin the negative energy surrounding politics right now into something positive. To Northam, the result is energy from voters who want to do something to stem the tide.

“There’s just a lot of folks now who have never been involved in politics that come up to me and say, Ralph, how can I get involved, how can I help?” Northam said. “I think a lot of that is because of what they see in Washington. They’re very worried about things like the travel ban. They’re worried about healthcare for their families, the talk about repealing the Affordable Care Act, really with no way to replace it, or no plan to replace it. Environmental issues, certainly where I come from, in Hampton Roads, people are very worried about the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

“There’s a tremendous amount of focus on what’s going on in Washington, and people in Virginia want to know that there’s going to be a leader that will stand up and make sure that those policies don’t interfere with what we’ve done in Virginia,” Northam said.

The sitting governor, Terry McAuliffe, also a Democrat, has made economic development a priority in his administration, following the lead of two Democratic gubernatorial predecessors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

Northam, for his part, is talking business on the campaign trail.

“We have made tremendous progress in Virginia, particularly with economic opportunity for all Virginians, no matter who they are, no matter where they are,” Northam said. “We’ve brought in, as you probably know, over 190,000 jobs to Virginia, over $15 billion, with a b-, of capital investment. Our unemployment rate has gone from 5.4 to 3.9 percent. Good things are happening in Virginia, and if you ask the average person out on the street what’s important to you in Virginia, it will be the number-one thing is that they have a job that they can support themselves with and their families. And if it’s not asking for too much, they want to make sure that their families have access to affordable and quality healthcare. And finally, they want to make sure that their children have access to a world-class education system.

“We’ve planted some great seeds in Virginia, this administration, in some very fertile soil, and these things are coming to fruition now, and growing, and we’re just very excited about where we’re going to take Virginia.”

Interesting point there about healthcare. Repeal and replace was a key foundation piece for the Trump’s domestic agenda with respect to the Affordable Care Act, styled ObamaCare by Republicans. The alternative pushed by Trump and Ryan, which Democrats are taking to styling TrumpCare, just went down to an embarrassing, for the GOP, defeat, not even garnering enough support in the majority-Republican House of Representatives to get to the House floor for an up-or-down vote.

McAuliffe is trying to seize on that political laying of eggs to revive his three-plus-year push to have Virginia expand Medicaid to cover more than 400,000 working Virginians who are currently uninsured.

Northam is pledging to continue fighting that fight as governor.

“I would hope that the legislators in Virginia would be open-minded to that, Chris,” Northam said. “Right now, we have 400,000 working Virginians, and I would underline the word working, because these are folks that may have one, two, three jobs, but because the costs of healthcare have risen as fast as they have, their salaries haven’t kept up with those rises, so they don’t have access to coverage. It is very important … it is morally the right thing to do to make sure that Virginians have good health coverage.

“The second point I would make, Chris, that I think people don’t hear sometimes, is that every day, every day that we don’t accept Medicaid expansion in Virginia, we are not only leaving on the table, but we are giving over $5 million to surrounding states that we compete with. I remind people as a business person, and I own my medical practice, any business person that wants to give their competitors $5 million a day, I will tell them as a neurologist, Chris, that they ought to have their heads examined.”

The “right thing to do,” Northam emphasized, “is to expand Medicaid, is to sit down at the table and say, This is revenue that we desperately need coming back to the Commonwealth of Virginia. As you know, we balance our budget each year. It is very, very important. I hope that all Virginians across this great Commonwealth realize that’s morally and from a business perspective just the correct thing to do.

“If you do the math, we have given to other states over $10 billion, with a b-, that we will never get back. So again, from a business perspective, this is something that we all need to sit at the table and work through.”

Which is, of course, much easier said than done. It’s safe to presume that if Northam is elected governor in November he will have to achieve whatever he wants to achieve in the policy realm with the acquiescence of Republicans in the General Assembly.

The Senate will remain in GOP control, with the next elections in that chamber not coming until 2019. And the House is almost certain to not just remain in the hands of Republicans, but at or near a veto-proof-majority level.

Northam knows that his work is cut out for him in terms of having to work with Republicans to get things done.

“I have great relationships with people in Richmond on both sides of the aisle,” Northam said. “We can agree to disagree, but at the end of the day, we need to come together and do what’s in the best interests of Virginia. If you look at my track record, things like the smoking ban in restaurants, all of the great work that we were able to do with concussions for our student-athletes, all of those policies happened because we were able to work with folks on both sides of the aisle.

“What I’ll do as the 73rd governor of the Commonwealth is to use those great relationships and bring people to the table. Again, we can agree to disagree, but at the end of the day, we’re going to do it the Virginia way. We’re going to bring civility to the process, and we’re going to move Virginia in a positive direction.”

We’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit there, of course. All eyes are on the June primaries and that dead-heat race between Northam and Perriello, which the Perriello side is trying to cast as a repeat of the 2016 presidential nomination race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, with Perriello as Sanders, the progressive outsider, and Northam as Clinton, the centrist insider.

Northam, maybe toeing the PR line, said the intraparty challenge will be good for Democrats in the end.

“We’re proud to be Democrats in Virginia. We believe that good things happen when we elect Democrats,” Northam said. “Whether folks supported Bernie or Hillary, they’re Virginians. That’s the way I view things now. I am running to take Virginia to the next level, so I encourage all of those folks to be involved with the party.

“I think this primary has been good for Virginia. It’s been very good for the Democratic Party. Because it allows people to see who I am, it allows people to see who Tom is, look at the contrast between what we stand for, what we fought for over the time that we’ve been in public service, and really look at our resumes, and it will help with our name ID. This will really prepare me for the general election on Nov. 7.”

The 2017 race is Northam’s second as a statewide candidate. Statewide races are both marathons and sprints at the same time, with daily news cycles promising the possibility of quick, short-term victories, but the only scoreboards mattering in the end coming on primary and election days.

“It’s hard work, but it’s worth it,” Northam said. “I’ve had great opportunities in my life, access to a world-class education. As you know, I served in the United States Army, and then to be able to serve in the Senate and as lieutenant governor, just tremendous opportunities. The reason I’m in public service is to give our children and grandchildren the same opportunities I’ve had.

“I have a great team. I believe in putting good people around me. I let them use their talent, and that makes everybody look good. We are focused right now on June 13, and I would encourage everybody to get out and vote on that day, and then once we get past the primary, and we feel like we’re going to be successful there, we’re going to focus on Nov. 7, and we’re going to continue to do great things for the people across the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Story by Chris Graham