Home 2019 Elections Exclusive: Interview with Virginia Democratic LG Candidate Ralph Northam

Exclusive: Interview with Virginia Democratic LG Candidate Ralph Northam


Recently, I interviewed Aneesh Chopra, one of two candidates for the Democratic nomination for Lt. Governor of Virginia. Yesterday, prior to the Brigades meeting at Neighbors Restaurant in Vienna, I had a chance to sit down with State Senator Ralph Northam, the other Democrat running for LG this year. I shot some video of Sen. Northam speaking to the 100 or so Brigades members in attendance. For this post, though, I wanted to concentrate mainly on the ground we covered in our interview. Here are my questions and Sen. Northam’s answers, summarized for brevity. Thanks again to Sen. Northam for his time, and for an interesting, informative interview.

Question #1

I asked Sen. Northam about a concern I’ve heard mentioned, that if he won the LG race, his Senate seat would open up and could be lost to the Democrats.

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

Northam expressed confidence that Democrats would hold the seat, specifically mentioned “two good candidates” – Lynwood Lewis and Paula Miller. Northam added that redistricting in 2011 swung the 6th Senate district “a few points in the Democratic [direction],” although of course no district is ever totally safe. Bottom line: Northam doesn’t think this will, or should be, an issue in the LG campaign.

Question #2

I asked Sen. Northam what he thought about the controversy over Republican efforts to re-redistrict the State Senate, just 2 years after it was redistricted following the 2010 census.

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

Northam noted that the Republican re-redistricting plan would mean that 46% of Virginians will have a different Senator. That, according to Northam,, “obviously is not good democracy, but it’s also unconstitutional” (the Virginia constitution says redistricting should occur in the year ending in “1” every 10 years). Northam’s hope is that Speaker Howell will rule this legislation “non-germane.” If that doesn’t happen, “we hope that the governor will have the spine to veto the bill, and if he doesn’t, then we’re going to end up in court; we’re going to fight it to the end…”

Question #3

I asked why Sen. Northam decided to run for LG this year, also why he changed his mind from his inclination earlier this year that he wouldn’t run.

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

Northam spoke about the importance of getting “our majority back in the Senate…the only body right now that can stop the [Republican] social agenda, the voter suppression laws…last year “believe it or not, we were one vote away from the ‘personhood’ bill, you talk about taking the Commonwealth of Virginia back to the 19th century, that would have done it.” In addition, Northam believes that as LG, he’ll be able to “travel around the state and recruit good [Democratic] candidates” in both the Senate and House “and to change some of these seats.” This is important, he feels, because “looking at their [social] agenda, their assault on women, their assault on democracy with voter suppression, there’s no reasoning with these people…they don’t have logic, so the only way to change that trend is to replace their seats” with “good Democrats.” Finally, Northam noted that one of his medical practice partners had passed away in February 2012, and that “left a tremendous void.” Since that time, however, Northam and his remaining medical practice partners were able to “make some adjustments in our practice.” In addition, Northam’s partners and his wife urged him to run, given the importance of health care issues.

Question #4

I asked Sen. Northam what his view of the Virginia LG position was, other than breaking ties in the Senate.

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

Northam said breaking the ties and presiding over the Senate is the #1 function of the office, along with “maintaining the traditions of the Senate.” As he already mentioned, recruiting Democratic candidates is important as well. And of course health care is a top priority, given all the uncertainties with the Affordable Care Act, to “put Virginia in the best possible posture to provide quality health care to all Virginians.” Northam specifically mentioned the expansion of Medicaid, noting that it’s VERY short sighted for Virginia not to be expanding Medicaid, the health care exchange, and the general evolution of health care from a quantity-based system to a quality- or outcome-based system (“that’s the only way we’re ever going to address costs…and that’s what’s driving the Commonwealth and the nation to its knees”). Northam argued that he could have more influence as LG than as 1 of 40 Senators, in a “couple ways,” as an adviser to Governor McAuliffe, as well as working with the Secretary of Health and the Commissioner of Health. Finally, Northam said that as a doctor, he is “naturally a mediator,” and he hopes to bring some moderation and bipartisan cooperation back to the Senate.

Question #5

I asked Sen. Northam what other issues, aside from health care, that he’d be focusing on his campaign and as LG, if he’s elected.

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

The #1 priority, in Northam’s view, is “our economy and jobs,” and the “way to support that is through transportation…that has got to be the top priority for the Commonwealth.” Northam hopes Gov. McAuliffe will “form a commission” to deciding out what our transportation needs are, how to find a sustainable source of revenue, etc. Northam said that he’s “a big proponent of transit, we can’t just keep widening roads and pouring more concrete…we have to look at ways of getting vehicles off the roads…we have to have a plan that involves the entire system.”

A couple other areas Northam stressed were education and energy. On education, he noted that he’s a medical school professor, and he tells people that “other countries are not playing for second.” Northam’s a “tremendous advocate” for pre-K education. As far as K-12, “we still need to put more emphasis on vocational and technical training, as obviously not everyone’s destined to go to college” and we need to have people prepared for the workforce. Finally, we’re “blessed with good colleges and universities, but we can’t get behind the curve on that…[also] taxpayers in the Commonwealth should have ‘first dibs’ on our colleges and universities.”

On energy, Northam stressed having a strong Renewable Portfolio Standard for renewable energy. He is strongly supportive of “decoupling” power production from the power companies’ profits, arguing that incentivizing conservation and energy efficiency could probably reduce our energy consumption by 20%. Northam likened energy to health care, arguing that we need to move from a “quantity-based system” to a “quality-based system,” and focus on the tremendous potential of things like Virginia offshore wind power. Bottom line: “we need some vision and we need a comprehensive energy plan…what are our needs and what are the best ways to move forward?”

Question #6

I asked Sen. Northam specifically about climate change and the impacts on the Hampton Roads area.

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

Northam said he’s spent a lot of time on this, was on Gov. Kaine’s climate change commission, knows how important it is for us to prepare for sea level rise and other impacts of climate change. Northam noted that the science-denying attitudes of the attitudes of the Ken Cuccinellis of the world are an “embarrassment for Virginia in 2013.”

Question #7

We continued discussing Ken Cuccinelli and his attitudes beyond climate science…

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

According to Northam, everything Cuccinelli’s done – his attack on women’s reproductive rights, in vitro fertilization, contraception, etc. – has been “to take us backwards rather than in a positive direction.” In 2013, Northam argued, we need leaders who understand how to interpret science and believe in science, because that’s what’s going to take us in a positive direction.” Northam agreed with Sen. Herring that Cuccinelli’s persecution of Michael Mann was “unAmerican.” Northam quipped that he has a degree in psychiatry and neurology and he “can’t figure Ken Cuccinelli out…his positions just defy logic.”

Question #8

I asked Sen. Northam what his case was for Democratic voters to support him over Aneesh Chopra in the primary.

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

Northam argued that he’s been “in the trenches” for years, “fighting for the people of Virginia;” that he has numerous relationships and legislative accomplishments in a variety of areas; that he’s run two winning campaigns in Virginia, demonstrating his “electability;” and finally the need for “diversity on the ticket” (he was raised in a “rural area,” it’s important for Hampton Roads to have representation in the state).

Question #9

I asked Sen. Northam about rumors that he’d been approached by Senate Republicans in 2009 to switch parties, and that he supposedly had considered it.

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

Northam said there was a lot of misinformation (e.g., RPV chair Jeff Fredericks “didn’t know what he was talking about”), that all it was a “Republican pipe dream,” that he’s a strong and longstanding Democrat who’s fought for Democratic principles, and that he would “never even think about” changing parties. Northam added that “the Lieutenant Governor has to be extremely loyal to his party,” and that he’s been a loyal Democrat for years on issue after issue. Northam also noted that if Republicans put a good idea on the table that could help Virginia, he’s willing to move forward with it as a “statesman.”

Question #10

Just as I did with Aneesh Chopra, I asked Sen. Northam about the same pieces of legislation being debated in this year’s General Assembly, and asked him whether he supported or opposed it.

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

1. Bob McDonnell’s transportation legislation. Northam says any plan that takes money from the general fund is a “non-starter.” It also makes not “a bit of sense,” in his view, to penalize hybrid vehicles. There also won’t be any plan that gets out of the Senate that eliminates the gas tax.

2. Deeds bill: “Requires a background check for any firearm purchase.” “Great bill” – YES.

3. Janet Howell bill: “Elections; absentee voting. Provides that qualified voters may vote absentee in person without providing an excuse or reason.” “Great idea” – YES.

4. Mark Herring (SB 1084): “Health insurance; authorizes SCC to establish state plan management partnership exchange.” “Excellent idea” – YES.

5. Mark Herring: “Classification as hospitals of certain facilities in which abortions are performed. Eliminates language classifying facilities in which five or more first trimester abortions per month are performed as hospitals for the purpose of compliance with regulations of the Board of Health…” “I was helping him with that” – YES.

6. Donald McEachin: “Constitutional amendment (first resolution); restoration of voting rights. Provides for the automatic restoration of voting rights to persons convicted of nonviolent felonies…” “Very supportive of that” – YES.

7. Chap Petersen: “Renewable energy facilities; eligibility for incentives. Establishes a requirement that electricity generated from renewable sources be generated from a facility located in the Commonwealth…” “A very good idea” – YES.

8. Donald McEachin: “Nondiscrimination in state employment. Prohibits discrimination in state employment based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, or status as a special disabled veteran…” YES.

9. Ralph Northam: “Study; mandatory renewable energy portfolio standard program…”  (It’s his bill, so obviously YES)

10. Ralph Northam: ” Ultrasound prior to abortion. Removes the requirement that a woman undergo a transabdominal ultrasound prior to an abortion.” (Again, it’s his bill, so obviously YES)

11. Mamie Locke: “Payday lending. Repeals provisions authorizing payday lending in the Commonwealth.” “Very supportive” – YES.

12. John Miller: “Virginia Redistricting Commission created. Establishes a five-member commission to prepare redistricting plans for the House of Delegates, state Senate, and congressional districts. Appointments to the Commission shall be made one each by the four majority and minority party leaders of the House and Senate.” “That’s a great idea” – YES.

13. Thomas Garrett: “Nonpublic school students; participation in interscholastic programs. Prohibits public schools from joining an organization governing interscholastic programs that does not deem eligible for participation a student who (i) is receiving home instruction or is attending a private school that does not offer the interscholastic program in which the student wishes to participate” (Tebow bill) NO.

14. Charles Carrico: ” Constitutional amendment (first resolution); freedom of speech. Expands the freedom of speech provisions of the Constitution of Virginia to permit prayer and the recognition of religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public school property.” “Very much opposed” – NO.

15. Charles Carrico: “Substance abuse screening and assessment of public assistance applicants and recipients. Requires local departments of social services to screen each Virginia Initiative for Employment Not Welfare (VIEW) program participant to determine whether probable cause exists to believe the participant is engaged in the use of illegal substances.” NO. (Northam joked that perhaps we should do this for legislators instead of welfare recipients)

16. Chap Petersen: “Constitutional amendment (first resolution); tax credits. Provides that no tax credit shall remain in effect longer than five years unless it is reenacted by the General Assembly.” “That’s a great idea…probably needs to be on an individual, case-by-case basis,” as businesses need to plan long term. But yes, we need to “look at all these credits.”

17. Barbara Comstock: “Right to vote by secret ballot on labor organization representation. Declares that, in any procedure providing for the designation, selection, or authorization of a labor organization to represent employees, the right of an individual employee to vote by secret ballot is a fundamental right that shall be guaranteed from infringement.” NO.

18. Mark Cole: “Elections; polling place procedures; voter identification requirements. Removes several items from the list of acceptable identification documents that a voter must present when voting at the polls on election day: a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, or paycheck that shows the name and address of the voter.” “A terrible law…we should be making it easier, not more difficult, for people to vote.” NO. (“They obviously got beat badly in 2012, so they’re doing what they can to change the rules…”)

Question #11

I asked a number of quick questions on energy issues, including on offshore oil drilling, fracking and mountaintop removal coal mining.

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

Northam has “significant concerns” about offshore oil drilling and the potential for an oil spill: military training, NASA Wallops, aquaculture (oil spill would “totally wipe them out”), the risk to tourism of oil on the beaches, offshore oil drilling royalties wouldn’t even come to Virginia, etc. More importantly, we have huge offshore wind resources, why don’t we focus on that instead of “Drill Baby Drill?”

Fracking: We have to be “real careful,” we need to “wean ourselves away from fossil fuels.”

Mountaintop removal coal mining: Northam said there are a lot more, better jobs that would come from expanding wind energy compared to capital-intensive mountaintop removal coal mining.

Question #12

Finally, I asked Sen. Northam how we can bridge the differences – economic, political, cultural, etc. – between different parts of Virginia?

Sen. Northam’s answer (condensed)

In Northam’s view, we live in a “diverse state…different areas, different interests, different agendas.” The key to bridging those differences is “communication.”


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