By Carol Vaughn —
Virginia’s 73rd governor, Ralph Northam, in an interview with the Eastern Shore Post last week looked back at his administration’s accomplishments and talked about what comes next.
Northam, only the second Eastern Shore native to serve as Virginia governor, handed over the keys to Virginia’s Executive Mason to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who took the oath of office Saturday.
Northam thanked Eastern Shore residents for their support over the years.
“To represent the Shore in the Senate for six years was a tremendous privilege and now to represent them as governor,” he said.
Many of his friends and extended family, including his 97-year-old father, live on the Shore and Northam said he looks forward to spending more time with them.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist with a practice in Norfolk, told his wife, Pam, he was taking Sunday off and would head back to his job Monday morning. He also is on the faculty at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
“We’ve had a good team and I think when we turn over the keys on Saturday we are leaving Virginia a lot better than it was when I started four years ago. Our economy is doing well and we are, I think, a much more open state, so I’m proud of the work that my team has done,” Northam said.
Among the accomplishments of which he is proud are steps taken to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Concern about the Bay was “one of the reasons I ran” for the Virginia Senate, he said, noting, “The Bay was literally my backyard growing up on the mouth of Onancock Creek. I watched the demise of the Bay.”
Serving as chairman of the Chesapeake Executive Council, which includes the governors of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and West Virginia, the mayor of Washington, D.C., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and the Chesapeake Bay Commission chairperson, was a highlight, according to Northam.
He noted more than $1 billion this year is being invested in improving the Bay’s health.
“To make that healthier, not just for us, but for our children and grandchildren, I really think people will look back and say that was a good initiative,” Northam said.
He also cited other accomplishments, including efforts to develop renewable energy and resiliency measures against sea level rise, among others.
The development of offshore wind power, in particular, “is really going to transform Hampton Roads and, I think, all of Virginia — provide a lot of jobs, is good for the environment and it’s also really good for the economy,” Northam said.
Although no one knew when he took office that Northam would oversee Virginia’s response to a pandemic, health care also was a priority of his administration.
Expanding Medicaid in a bipartisan way is something of which Northam is proud.
“Now, during COVID, over 600,000 Virginians have access to health care that didn’t back in 2018. It’s a really important time for people to have access,” he said.
Northam also mentioned the G3 (Get a Skill, Get A Job, Get Ahead) program, a tuition assistance program in Virginia community colleges for students who qualify for state financial aid, with a household income less than $100,000. G3 is available for select programs in five of Virginia’s most in-demand industries.
The program “really helps folks on the Eastern Shore that want to go to community college.
They don’t have to pay any tuition and it helps with wrap-around expenses like transportation and child care,” he said.
Also in the education field, Northam noted the inclusion of a cost-of-competing adjustment for Eastern Shore K-12 public schools in his final budget. The adjustment is intended to help school districts attract and retain teachers by being able to offer more competitive salaries.
Additional accomplishments likely to have positive impacts on the Shore include efforts to attract Rocket Lab to locate its Neutron rocket facilities at NASA Wallops, as well as major investments in broadband expansion.
“By 2024, everybody will have access in Virginia to broadband — that will really be good for the Eastern Shore,” he said, noting this year, the state invested just over $2 billion dollars in broadband, compared to $4 million a year when he took office.
Land conservation is another area where the Shore will see benefits, according to Northam.
Finally, his team’s response to COVID-19 “has saved thousands of lives” in Virginia, Northam said, noting, “We had a lot of challenges with COVID on the Shore and we had a really good response and good relationship with both Perdue and Tyson’s when the virus was spreading; and I think because we have been able to follow the science and data and make decisions that keep Virginians healthier, we are at a much better place than a lot of our other states with both the number of cases and deaths.”
Northam credited Eastern Shore Rural Health and Riverside Health System for the Shore having good health care options, especially compared to some other rural areas.
“They are to be commended for the work they have done,” he said.
Asked what “breaks his heart to think he didn’t get it done,” Northam said, “You know, I don’t have a broken heart over anything. We hit the ground running four years ago and I had the advantage of having served in the Senate for six years and then as lieutenant governor for four. I knew the politics of Richmond. I had good relationships. I think that has really worked to my advantage.”
Having a Democratic majority in both the House of Delegates and the Senate for a time also helped get things done, according to Northam.
If he could run for a second term — Virginia governors can not run for a second consecutive term — a priority would be universal early childhood education, Northam said.
He also would keep working to improve the Bay’s health, “because, while it has improved, we still have a lot of work to do.”
In his post-politics life, Dr. Northam was scheduled to see 10 patients Monday, a slight break from his normal schedule of 18 to 20.
“They’re going to give me a break and start me off slow,” he said.
The last four years will inform the next part of Northam’s life, he said.
“With my experience, I’ll certainly be a better doctor and also probably a better teacher, being able to bring my perspective on being governor into both practicing medicine and teaching. I look forward to that.”
Northam said being a candidate for elected office again is not in his immediate plans.
“I’ll pay attention and certainly help people if they seek my help, but I don’t think you will see my name on a ballot any time soon,” he said.
Northam said he is proud that over the last four years “we have proven that we can be progressive in Virginia; we can take care of our workers; we can embrace diversity and be stewards of our environment, while at the same time having a strong economy.”
He noted Virginia’s economy “is as strong as it has ever been,” noting the commonwealth now has a surplus of $2.6 billion and has been ranked as the number one state in which to do business for three consecutive years.
His administration announced at the end of December revenue was up 20% from the previous December — “that’s despite COVID-19,” he said.
What gives Northam hope?
“Virginia does — the people. … I’ve traveled around and been welcomed in all corners, in all areas of Virginia. Virginians are good people. They are hardworking; they follow our guidelines for COVID for the most part, so we’re in a good place there. We have a really talented workforce. We’ve put investment in K through 12 and early childhood (education), so I think we have really laid the groundwork to move Virginia in a more positive direction,” he said.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Northam said, adding, “When we turn the keys over on Saturday, I really think that Virginia is a better place than it was four years ago and the governor-elect will have a tremendous opportunity to build on our progress — and also a responsibility at the same time.”