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Set to leave office, Northam reflects on governorship

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Crixell Matthews
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who leaves office at the end of the week. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

One week from today, Governor Ralph Northam will return to his medical practice in Norfolk.  

During his final days in office, Northam has been reflecting on his time leading the state.   

VPM State Politics Reporter Ben Paviour sat down with him last week. The interview was edited down for clarity.   

BEN PAVIOUR: What's your proudest accomplishment upon leaving office? And what do you hope your legacy will be?  

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM: I don't really talk about legacies. That's not who I am. I get up in the morning to try to help people. I think if one looks at my life, when I served in the United States Army, I served for 18 years voluntarily as the medical director of Edmark hospice, which is a pediatric hospice, taking care of terminally ill children, I have seen 1000s of sick children and their families over the year. So, I get up in the morning to help people.  

And you know, to be able to help Virginians at a different level, obviously, 8, about 8.5 million Virginians, starting with Medicaid expansion. I mean, we've been through two years of a pandemic, tremendous challenges. And I can't imagine when a when a person is sick, not having access to a provider. So, being able to expand Medicaid in Virginia and in a bipartisan way, I think was a major accomplishment. I think the fact that we were able to bring Amazon to Virginia that literally transformed that Crystal City area, national landing up in Northern Virginia. A lot of investment went into infrastructure, workforce training, and other businesses, very good paying jobs in that area.  

What has happened over the last four years, I think, in a nutshell, if you will, is it, Virginia has seen a lot of progression, we've had one of the most progressive administrations that Virginia has ever seen. And at the same time, we have a stronger economy than Virginia's ever seen. So, it's proven that both can happen at the same time.  

PAVIOUR: What do you think are going to be the biggest challenges Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin will face in office? 

NORTHAM: I use the analogy of being a doctor. We take calls on the weekends and at night, and being governor has been like being on call 24/7. There is always something happening. I mean, just two days ago, we had a snowstorm and backups on Interstate 95. My advice would be to put good people around you and let them do what they're good at doing, have empathy. Listen to Virginians know what their needs are, and then respond to those needs. Just when you think things are kind of going pretty well, another challenge pops up and, and if you have good people and you know, you have good leadership, then you deal with those as they happen. 

PAVIOUR: You campaigned on reining in Virginia's campaign finance laws, some of the loosest in the country in yet Democrats held power, nothing changed. Why do you think there hasn't been movement on that issue?  

NORTHAM: I think that's something that the people are going to need to stand up and say, you know, we want change. And that's again, that's how, as public leaders, you know, we direct what policy were proposed and then get gets passed. I've always been a proponent for comprehensive finance, or campaign finance reform. It didn't happen in my four years. Again, if I'd have four more years. It's something that I will continue to work on. But it will be something for future administrations, 

PAVIOUR: Democrats passed a number of policies over the last two years that you pitched as popular raising the minimum wage, abolishing the death penalty, legalized marijuana just to name a few. And yet the November elections didn't really go Democrats’ way. Do you think the party misread the political leanings in the state?  

NORTHAM: A lot of what we've been able to accomplish in Virginia was as a result of listening, learning and then taking action. And I don't think we talked about what we've done enough in the past election, because it was just in response to what Virginians were asking for. You mentioned a lot of things like legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. I'm not big on polling. But I think if one were to poll that particular issue, it would poll fairly well, in Virginia. So to, you know, go back from what we accomplished in that regard, I think would be ill advised. The death penalty is the same. As far as polling, Medicaid expansion, all of these things have done had been done in response to what people have asked for. So perhaps, and I'm not going to Monday morning quarterback, it wasn't my campaign. I wasn't running this year. But I don't think those that ran on the Democratic ticket talked enough about what we've been able to accomplish. 

PAVIOUR: You've denied you appeared in that infamous yearbook photo. Have you learned in the last two years who was in that photo? 

NORTHAM: Well, that was a very difficult time for Virginia. And I'm pleased that Virginia stuck with me. I committed myself and the cabinet administration to really address inequity. We've done A lot of listening. We've learned a lot. And as I say, the more we know, the more we can do. And we've turned a lot of what we learned into action. There have been two thorough investigations regarding the yearbook. Those are public, and I really don't have any further comment on those investigations. 

PAVIOUR: I know this is a maybe dangerous hypothetical. But um, if you had been allowed to run again, would you have? 

NORTHAM: Oh, absolutely. And I would have won. 

PAVIOUR: Do you - would you have any interest in running again? 

NORTHAM: Well, it's a great question. And, you know, I'm going back to my practice on January the 17th, back in Norfolk, Virginia, Children's Specialty group and I look forward to that. I also teach, I think, with what I've learned, as being governor and certainly served in the Senate as lieutenant governor, how I'll be a better doctor, and I'll also be a better teacher, but I don't think you'll see my name on the ballot anytime soon. 

PAVIOUR: Are there hobbies you've neglected that you're looking forward to getting back to? 

NORTHAM Oh, absolutely. Since I was in high school, I have restored cars. For a hobby. I have a 1953 Oldsmobile that looks like it just came out of the showroom. I have a 1971 Corvette 454 four speed convertible, that I haven't been able to drive for four years. And as most people know, I enjoy fishing. And so I look forward to getting back into those activities. Pam and I enjoy kayaking, spending time on the water and look back and getting with my friends at some I have been in touch with for a number of years. So, a lot of things again, this has been a privilege to serve, but I look forward to the next chapter. 


Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.