EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam

Political pundits assumed Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam would cruise to the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia this year, but all that has changed in the past few months.

Announcing his run to succeed term-limited Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2016 and quickly receiving endorsements from nearly every major party leader in Virginia, Northam was positioned to carry the Democrat’s mantle. Then came the unexpected election of Republican President Donald Trump and with it a wave of liberal resistance and activism that has brought newfound support for Democrats generally, and challenges to the party’s establishment figures. Progressive energy encouraged former one-term Congressman Tom Perriello to enter the gubernatorial race in January, and with little name recognition or support from the party  apparatus, he has shot past Northam in the polls.

An Army veteran, doctor and former two-term state Senator representing the conservative Eastern Shore of Virginia, Northam says he isn’t worried about his primary challenger or defeating a would-be Republican opponent in the general election. While having to reaffirm his liberal credentials in a tougher-than-expected run to the June 13 primary, Northam told the Tribune his support for K-12 education, responsible fiscal planning and progressive values will resonate with voters in Loudoun and throughout the Commonwealth.

You’ve made several campaign stops in Loudoun and have promised many more. Talk about the importance of this county as you work to become the Commonwealth’s next governor. 

“Loudoun and Prince William County are very important to us. Obviously every vote counts, but we know that in Northern Virginia there are a lot of voters up here. You’re going to be seeing me up here a lot, particularly in Loudoun County. This is the home of (State. Sen. and Democratic congressional candidate) Jennifer Wexton and and my friend (Attorney General) Mark Herring in Leesburg.””

One of the focal points of your campaign is education reforms, including access to full-day kindergarten for all Virginians. As Loudoun County works to increase its full-day kindergarten offerings, why is this such a major focal point for you?

“In Virginia, we need to make sure that K-through-12 is a priority. We had the recession back in ’07 that cut some of the funding, but our numbers are looking better each month. It starts with leadership. Everything I talked about, whether about women’s issues or inclusivity or education, it all comes down to the economy. The message for this as we go forward is Pre-K is important, full day kindergarten is important. All of these things are important for workforce development, and that feeds into economic development. We want to make sure we’re training the future workforce, and that starts at a very early age.”

What happens after Virginia students finish their k-12 education is also a major issue in the campaign, and Perriello has proposed free two-year community college for all Virginians. What’s your plan for this area?

“We just introduced the G3 program, “Get Skilled, Get a Job and Give Back,” that we’re offering where you can go to community college for free with the understanding that you become certified and give back a year for public service. This goes back to apprenticeships as well. I think everybody should have some skin in the game, and it is an opportunity to have your education paid for with the obligation that you give a year back. That’s the way I approached education. I joined the Army to pay for my college and my medical school and I gave back eight years, in my case. I think that’s a great way to be educated and not incur a lot of debt as part of your education.

If two years of community college is free, we have to ask the next question of ‘how do we fund that?’ That’s why in the G3 program, I have a way to fund the free community college program while giving back.”

In every election, tax rates and the economy are major concerns. While Republican gubernatorial candidates Ed Gillespie and Corey Stewart both promise tax cuts, what is the plan behind your tax policies? 

“We have to look at responsible, and I underline the word ‘responsible’ tax policy. If you want to look at irresponsible tax reform, look at (former Republican) Gov. Jim Gilmore. He ran on no car tax, and we still haven’t recovered. That hurt K-through-12 and it hurt higher education, so it’s one thing to go out there and talk about something, but it’s another thing to go out there and do what’s responsible for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Right now, with what’s going in Washington, talking about pulling back from the EPA, all the great things we’ve done for the environment, pulling away $73 million from the Chesapeake Bay clean up, pulling health insurance coverage from thousands of Virginians, we have to be in a position to react to what’s going on in Washington. That means responsible leadership and being responsible fiscally. I’m more than willing to talk. I’m a business owner. I’m more than willing to talk about tax reform, but we have to do it in a responsible way.”

As Perriello has taken a lot of the spotlight for his unabashed support for progressive values, you have embraced traditional liberal wedge issues like support for an assault weapons ban and women’s reproductive rights. Will these stances on typically divisive issues hurt you as you try to appeal to voters from both parties?

“Not at all. I ran in 2007 (for state sen) in one of the most conservative district in Virginia, and I ran on the issues I talk about today in 2017. I won. I beat an eight-year incumbent. I won in a district where I was predicted to lose by 10 points. I beat him by 10 points. I ran again on ’11 on the same issues, and I ran again statewide as Lt. Gov. in 2013 on the same issues. I have been unwavering on progressive Democratic values and I won every time. This is the year of the Democrats in 2017. I have never seen the amount of energy and enthusiasm, not just here, but as we travel around Virginia. Our job is to harness that energy and take it to the polls. If we do, and we do it successfully, it’s going to be a long day for the Republicans on Election Day.”

The national media has made your Democratic Primary race between you and Perriello a proxy between the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary between establishment favorite Hillary Clinton and progressive Bernie Sanders, who endorsed Perriello earlier this month. Both you and your opponent have shrugged off this comparison as a contest between two candidates looking to govern Virginia, so how do you define yourself in this race?

“I’m a Virginian. I’ve been in Virginia politics for 10 years. I’ve been able to get some good things done. For example the smoking ban. I took on the tobacco industry, and I did that with work from both sides of the isle. I know how to get things done in Virginia. I am very proud of the grassroots support I have in Virginia, as well as folks like Sen. Kaine, Sen. Warner, Gov. McAuliffe, every Democratic senator in Virginia every Democratic Delegate in Virginia. They’ve all supported me, endorsed me and that support has been unwavering. They know what I’ve done and they know what I’m going to get done as the next governor. That’s why I say ‘Ralph Northam is all about the Commonwealth of Virginia.’ While it’s nice to have endorsements from other states, this is Virginia we’re dealing with and this is the governor’s race.”

How do you appeal to this energized, younger base that feels let down by the Democratic party and is more inclined to support Perriello?

“What we need to say and what we do as we travel around the Commonwealth is to make sure we let these voters know the things we’ve done and the principals we’ve been fighting for to help millenials and progressives. It includes things like having a job. We’ll fight for that every day as a Democrat. Having access to healthcare. People may think they’re invincible at 18, but at the end of the day, they’re going to need the ability to go see a doctor. Things like access to world class education. Things like women’s health care access. Things like inclusivity. Things like responsible gun ownership. All of these things are progressive values. We as Democrats don’t do as well some times at messaging. We’re going to have a great message this year. We’re going to reach out to our colleges, our universities, to our working class and to rural Virginia and we’re going to let them know that we’re there to help and we’re going to do some good things for them. That’s what they need to hear.”

Health care has been at the forefront of political discussion even before passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, and Perriello voted for it while serving in Congress. With your background as a doctor, what should be done to improve health care in America?

“We’ve been working on a lot of those things in Virginia. We’re going from what I call a quantity based system to an outcome based system. That’s the way we’ve been designing that system. I’ve chaired a committee that’s worked to identify that. That’s one thing. The other thing that people aren’t in healthcare don’t understand, and they certainty don’t understand in Washington, is that we need to talk about the cost issue. The reason costs are increasing is not because of the Affordable Care Act. The reason is because of the technology, the testing we have and where we spend our resources. If you think about it, a lot of our resources are spent in the last few weeks of a person’s life, and a lot of our resources are spent taking care of conditions like cancer, like COPD, like type II diabetes that are preventable. We need to shift our focus. Let’s prevent some of these things rather than using our resources to take care of it. That’s why things like this are important to have people like me and other healthcare providers that understand healthcare to sit at the table and say ‘how can we design a system that will benefit all Virginians and ultimately all Virginians.’

That all ties back to education. Young children are so impressionable. You teach them at that young age about good nutrition, staying away from cigarettes, staying away from drugs. We have an opiod crisis right now. We’ve lost over 1,000 Virginians. All these things are tied in together.”

You likewise have been a vocal proponent of federal Medicaid expansion into Virginia, one of 19 states that have opted out of the program. With Republicans in the General Assembly refusing to take up the program, how do you foresee a Medicaid expansion?

“Sometimes you can’t change people’s minds, so you have to work on changing their seats.”