I had the chance late this afternoon to chat with Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, about COVID-19, the 2020 General Assembly session, the Virginia budget, the redistricting amendment, the Northam governorship, and even our old pal (heh) Jerry Falwell, Jr.. See below for the questions and answers, lightly edited for clarity…and thanks to Clark Mercer for his time and serious, informative answers!
Question: I watched Gov. Northam’s press briefing today and was curious how much the decision to head into Phase 1 reopening next Friday was based on data/science – since the numbers of cases, hospitalizations, etc. are clearly still increasing – and how much it was based on pressure to get the economy moving again. In general, how much have political considerations factored in to decisions made in this crisis, such as closing the schools at the beginning?
Mercer: “The governor gets briefed every morning at 7:30; we have our Secretary of Health and Human Resources, our epidemiologists, our Commissioner of Health, our Secretaries of Public Safety and Veterans, myself and we’ve been looking at 5 or 6 data points…how many COVID patients, how many folks are in ICUs across the Commonwealth, how many of the ICUs are being used by COVID patients, how many hospitalizations are there?
The hospitalizations and ICUs and ventilators have been fairly steady, actually, the last couple weeks…Those have not seen the kind of increases that would give us cause for concern. Originally, it was May 8th…and that had been pushed back a little bit as well, that would have been this Friday, and it’s the percent of positive tests; obviously when you test more, you’re going to get a raw higher number, but it’s the percent of tests..So we felt like this Friday would have been too soon…the 15th…we talked with DC and MD, and they both have the 15th down as their quote-unquote Phase 1…NC’s a little bit sooner, they’re at Phase 1 this Friday…I talked to WV, KY and TN, and they all have kind of…TN just kind of went and opened up everything. Not sure exactly where WV and KY are…KY joined Midwest Consortium states.
So, look, we get criticized that we haven’t opened things up, and so this is certainly not buckling to any sort of pressure…we think it’s a responsible opening. The governor made the point today that we’ll continue to look at this over the next two weeks and if the numbers aren’t there, the numbers aren’t there. We think they will be…it’s based on data, and data comes in every day you look at it. You gotta see trends, there might be one blip here or there, so you’re not a slave to each data point, but…that’s all the data we look at…And he kind of explained why regionally would have been a real disaster for a lot of reasons. I will say we’re going to set out a set of standards that everybody has to meet, all corners of the Commonwealth, but if there are areas where we have particular concerns…that want to go slower, that need to go slower, they’re able to. So I’ll be on the phone later this week with elected officials in Northern Virginia talking to them, and that’s certainly a possibility for regions where that’s appropriate.”
Question: Are there certain data points that more important than other? Because, clearly, the number of cases is still going up…the numbers in general never seem to go down.
Mercer: “The tests are going up, we went from 2-3,000 per day…now we’re over 6,000 per day, we’ll be at 7,500 in the next couple days…By the 15th, we expect to be at 10,000 a day, which is kind of the goal. And that will allow us to do two things…to test in areas that we know are going to be prevalent…nursing homes…we’ve done a lot of the poultry plants, which has been a big issue for us the last week…It’s also going to allow us to do more community testing, more what you would consider to be random testing. And that’s a frustration for everyone, is that with limited resources, you need to put them at the areas where you have the most need, but that doesn’t necessarily give you a true random sampling, and that’s something I think everyone wants to see, what is the true prevalence throughout Virginia. And we think that will give us enough testing to do that.”
Question – Have the congregant living situations accounted for the bulk of the cases, fatalities, etc?
Mercer: “By far, the nursing homes and the senior homes, those are areas that are just, for all the reasons you would think, most ripe for this to be an issue. I think it’s been eye opening for the whole country to really take a step back and assess how we deal with and situate our seniors in these homes. I think it’s going to hopefully lead – we’re starting to think about putting together a longer term task force for kind of fundamentally looking at how senior homes are reimbursed and how they’re structured. We’ve got a really good team that’s kind of focused exclusively on it… we’re going to test every nursing home. The asymptomatic cases…that’s always a surprise when it comes back…I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise now that we’ve seen it enough…early on, the number of asymptomatic cases in some of these places was pretty prevalent…If you look at folks like SEIU and some of our home care givers, we had money in the budget, we have money in the budget to pay those folks more, and I think we need to look at fundamentally how we give care to seniors. The home care workers are a good example. We need to invest more in these folks, so that we can have more of our seniors stay at home and get care at home if they want to. As a society, I think we haven’t done that enough to date”
Question: Is this an example of a possibly better “new normal” we might be moving into? Maybe a silver lining of some sort?
Mercer: “I think the same way, that if you go to a restaurant in Arlington and want to look online and see what the health department has rated it…see if it got an A or an F… incorporating the social distancing, wearing the face masks, having the hand sanitizing, spacking, I think that will be part of giving consumers confidence going forward and those businesses that don’t take it seriously, for whatever variety of reasons, I don’t think customers are going to be too keen on frequenting those businesses…I think that’s what you see right now in Georgia, Mississippi, some of these places that have opened up. And you kind of ask, well how’s it going down there? And they say, well, it’s dead, no one’s out…because folks need to have confidence that their elected officials have opened up in a responsible fashion. The worst thing we could do is just say, well let’s just open everything back up, and all those guidelines we were talking about, the CDC’s 14-day averages, we’re ignoring that now. Your average person at home, it’s not going to be credible and they’re not going to want to go out. You’ve got to set a landscape that gives folks confidence that you’re actually following through on what you said you’re going to do.”
Question: Overall, how do you feel like the Northam administration done? Anything you would have done differently? Any legitimate critiques from Republicans or are they just trying to score political points?
Mercer: “I’d say there’s been in the last two weeks a pretty obvious partisan divide…It did not start out that way…at the beginning of this. And for whatever combination of reasons, in the last few weeks, there are some Republicans who have decided to make this overtly partisan. And that’s unfortunate. A number of them, Democrats and Republicans, continue to communicate with us; they pick up the phone, they call… I just responded to a Republican delegate…The folks who just send press releases or a tweet but never have actually picked up the phone and called or bothered to engage on the issues…We have calls three times per week with the General Assembly, and someone who has never asked a question and then they send out a press release, that’s pretty overtly political. I think Virginia’s in an interesting spot politically when you look at it on the map…where it’s physically located, in the mid-Atlantic, not in the South, not in the Northeast…it’s kind of smack in the middle, we’re a blue state now, but we certainly have a number of Republicans elected, so we’re not as blue as some states and we’re not as red as others. And we border a lot of different states…we’ve got DC on one side, MD, KY, TN, NC… a lot of folks that view this differently.
The governor obviously has been through a lot this administration, and he made the decision early on, he said look, I’m not going to do cable TV, I’m not going to worry about how I can increase my p.r. on this, I’m going to be focused on Virginia…talking to Virginians at least three times per week, if not every day early on. I’m not going to be forced into making decisions. I don’t want to be the first to do something just because we want to get headlines…I don’t want to be the last …I want to make measured decisions…the governors have generally done a really good job around the country….some have been put in really tough situations…look at who the president tweeted about, it’s not a coincidence that he views those as swing states. I think the governor’s done really well. The poll that came out about 10 days ago, 7 out of 10 Republicans 9 out of 10 Democrats liked his handling of the crisis. His approval rating was back in the 60s. That’s indicative of how he’s handled it. Early on, people asked, why isn’t he going on cable TV more…He’s never had the interest in doing that. Especially up in the DMV area…you’ve got a lot of folks that are on cable TV…folks say, where’s the governor, why isn’t he on?”
Question: Yeah, they say, why isn’t he Andrew Cuomo?
Mercer: “I think Gov. Cuomo has done great, but clearly he likes to be in front of the camera…and his state is at the epicenter of this.”
Question: Anything you would have done differently?
Mercer: “Early on, some folks asked, why did you close the schools for the year, why didn’t you wait to make a decision in May? I said, well look, people need to plan…that’s what every state’s going to make a decision to do…I don’t think there’s a state in the country that people are going back to school. Early on, we were kind of criticized for that…Closing things down earlier, I think the way the virus was spreading…we thought we did that in a responsible order…It’s one of those things where someone criticizes, says your ICU admissions aren’t worst-case scenario, therefor you need to open everything up…that’s completely counterinuitive; the reason that they’re not is because we’ve taken these steps, and you completely give up on what you’ve been doing, you’re going to get back where the ICUs are filled up and the hospitalizations are peaked. Every decision we make, I get back to my desk and I get a handful of criticisms from one side that it’s not enough and a handful of criticism from the other side that it’s too much.”
Question: On right-wing talk radio the other day, Jerry Falwell claimed that Gov. Northam “has targeted Liberty University,” supposedly that Northam wants to “open up all the aviation schools, but he asked his aide, how can we do it without letting Liberty open up,” that COVID-19 is much less severe than the flu, that liberals like him want to “shut down our economy” in order to “expand socialism,” and that Northam’s “just the worst excuse for a governor that any state’s ever had.” Any response to any of that? Is it even worth responding to that?
Mercer: “I don’t think the governor has any kind of idea what Jerry Falwell’s saying on radio, I don’t think he pays any attention to it…Look, there are folks who like to be characters on the radio. I think the uniqueness of Jerry Falwell is he represents himself to be a Christian leader, and it’s so un-Christian how he acts and what he says. The last radio spot, he talked about his neighbors that live in Lynchburg with him, that if they were actually taking this seriously and wearing a mask, that they were only doing that because they are Democrats and going to hell. I mean, that is just such an unbelievably un-Christian thing to say. And..the hypocrisy; Liberty receives millions and millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money every year…There are thousands of private schools in the country, Liberty is #10 in the country for receiving CARE Act money… and here’s a virus that he’s making fun of, that he says is fake, but yet his school’s in the top 10 receiving money from the taxpayers, from the federal government, and he says in that same interview that he doesn’t need government money. Well, then, give that money back…A couple months ago he was with Jim Justice from West Virginia saying…join West Virginia…well, you know, there’s nothing stopping him as the president of Liberty from moving to West Virginia, but he’s going to stay right in Lynchburg, right in Virginia. You know, with some folks that are clearly…partisan personalities that like to be brash, you can kind of just dismiss them. But when it’s someone also claiming to be a Christian leader, it’s one of those that’s pretty disappointing to hear that kind of rhetoric. We hear from professors at LIberty…students at Liberty, I heard from a parent…who said hey, I’m as right as they come, I didn’t vote for your boss, but can you please help out with what’s happening with [Falwell], because this is endangering my kids…In a position of leadership like that, acting more like a grownup would probably serve that community well…”
Question: A more general question – Gov. Northam’s now more than halfway through his governorship. Looking back to inauguration day in January 2018, what would have most surprised you – for better or for worse – compared to what you might have expected? What would you say the high point and low point so far have been? How do you think historians will look back at this governorship?
Mercer: “You kind of don’t know necessarily what you’re signing up for, and I had no idea what we’d be through in this administration. I think you look at the results and how we’re affecting Virginians’ lives. Obviously, we got Medicaid expansion done, that was fantastic. Some of the criminal justice reform, with driver’s licenses…The voting stuff we’ve done, in terms of access to the voting booth. The Clean Economy Act this year, being able to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. My wife is our Secretary of the Commonwealth, which she was the Secretary under McAuliffe…She has restored more rights to more individuals than anyone in U.S. history…The proof is in the pudding, right? So from a policy perspective,
I think we have done fantastic. Obviously, the events of last February, nobody had any idea that was coming. It was tough…but it’s one of those things…we had very honest discussions here, said if we’re going to stay here, then we need to be honest about what’s happening, need to be honest about the inequities that exist and we need to address them head on. And one of the proudest is working to get rid of Lee-Jackson day and turning election day into a holiday. And allowing some of our localities to have more of a say over a variety of things… these are things folks fought for for decades. Minimum wage is going to go up next year, a variety of things that are going to help workers out….Flipping the General Assembly to Democratic control…that was a game changer in terms of getting a lot of these things done…I think it’s been one of the most historic Democratic administrations, and it’s obviously one…we have as a staff going without weekends, operating in a pretty intense environment, we kind of know what it’s like to take some arrows, take some criticisms, and a lot of them are valid, purely political… I think we’ve done really well, now it’s execution…need to join RGGI responsibly…later this month we’re going to have the first two wind turbines put up off the coast of Virginia Beach…really hope that we can not only build off the coast, but tap into NC, which will bring costs down and add a competitive measure to our own rates…
We’ve got more to do, we’ve got a budget to revisit later this summer/early fall when we reforecast….We had a few goals early on – Medicaid expansion, we knew Amazon was a good project that we could win; be the best state for business but also a better state for workers…wanted for years to join RGGI as an observer state, we’ve been itching for years to do that…These are really impactful. The Clean Economy Act, we worked extremely hard behind the scenes….This last time around, we said we have some important values we want to see reflected need in the Clean Economy Act and we’re going to work really hard behind the scenes, but we need the legislature and some of the stakeholders to come together and be the ones to lead it…and get it over the line, and we’re going to be very much behind the scenes and we were, pushing that very very hard. It’s exciting.”
Question: Is it fair to say that this is a governorship that, frankly, could have ended, but has now turned into one of the most historic governorships in Virginia history? Just to write this story – if you proposed this to Hollywood before this actually happened, they would have laughed you out of the room, said that’s just crazy, bizarre, that could never happen.
Mercer: “I think a big part of it..and I do think the governor said very genuinely, I’ve got a lot of work to do…I think a lot of legislators said if you’re willing to do the work, willing to really listen, really dig in and do the workd…whether it’s on…criminal justice reform, higher ed funding, whatever the topic, we’re going to hold you accountable, we want to see you do it, and I tihnk if you talk to a lot of them, they’ll say he has done the work…the gun safety legislation that was passed…even one of those things…you think of Doug Wilder’s…one-gun-a-month, that was his crowning achievement legislatively…and that was one of, what, six things that got done [on guns this session]…Also, the felony larceny threshold was raised to $500…and then it went to $1,000…Decriminalizing marijuana…and now we’ve got a study that we’ll complete this year…on how to legalize it responsibly…there are things that folks never thought was possible. I do think it’s brought the Democratic team together more closely…just focusing on getting things done.”
Question: How much does the hit to the budget due to COVID-19 threaten progressive accomplishments on things like teacher pay raises, pre-k, the G3 program, etc.?
Mercer – “I mean…it’s obviously disappointing; we don’t know exactly what the revenue picture will be…Look, by pursuing this unallotment strategy, it allows us in a couple months to reforecast, when we have a much clearer picture what the economy will be like. Clearly, I don’t think anyone would tell you it’s going to be as strong as it was a couple months ago. That being said, if you reforecast right now or two weeks ago, or three weeks ago…that would have been the lowest point possible. So if you are someone who fundamentally wants to see the government slashed, you would have wanted a reforecast to have happened 3-4 weeks ago. So we said, look, we’re going to unallot that, which means all of these priorities stay in the budget, you just don’t have the authority to spend that money until the General Assembly comes back and gives you the authority. And that does a few things to us…I think it’s really important for folks to understand…one, we’ll reforecast at a time when we hope – the idea that this virus, as the president said, will go poof, it’s going to be gone, that’s not going to happen…but a lot of what we’ve been through will be behind us at that point, we’ll have a clearer vision in terms of what lies ahead. I do think the economy will be in a stronger place…The second thing is it gives us time to take a step back, to take a really hard look at the entirety of the budget. Because what happens every two years in Virginia is we look at what the revenue estimates are, we look at the growth and how we’d like that growth to be spent. And we don’t do a good enough job of looking at the base budget in Virginia, which is where the overwhelming majority of the funds go, and ask, are these priorities still our priorities? I think the next 3-4 months, I think we’re going to have a chance to say, ok, some of these investments in education probably do outweigh some of the money that’s sitting in the base budget. But doing that kind of real deep dive on the budget takes time, and it’s not something we could have turned around in 2-3 weeks. The point we’re making to folks is let’s work together on this, but let’s take a little bit of time to do a deep dive on the budget and see what we can’t come back with. So yes, it is disappointing, no question…we’d all like to be able to take a break, spend more time with our families, take a weekend off, we’re not able to…after the last 1 ½ years of really going through some intensity, no one expected to give another 6 months of intense work, but that’s all good and it’s kind of where we’re at…[The special budget session probably will happen] late summer, early fall…”
Question: When is Gov. Northam going to pick a new State Corporation Commissioner and Court of Appeals judge?
Mercer: “That’s a good question… Obviously we were looking to do that sooner than we have… working with our counsel on that. We’ve got the applications of who applied to the SCC… During session, it was well articulated…that the amount of work that the SCC’s having to take on, the amount of topics they’re having to take on, they’re gonna have to stand up a health care system that’s a state-run system in addition to all the energy work that they have. So there are some great candidates that applied; we’re going to be looking at making that decision soon. And there’s multiple judgeships that are up…we typically ask the Bar Association to weigh in and rate candidates, we want to respect that process and take that into account. I think on the SCC, I think there’s a little bit more consensus with both bodies; on the judgeships, a little less consensus. Now that Reconvene is behind us, and it’s just coronavirus we have to deal with, I think we could probably pick up the judgeships and start making some recommendations pretty soon.”
Question: Coronavirus has dominated everything for the last couple months. If it weren’t for that, we’d be talking about so many accomplishments from the historic 2020 session. So I feel like we’re sort of shortchanging a lot of other stuff that got accomplished. How do you feel about that?
Mercer: “All the legislation that got passed that has money attached to it, which is about $33 million a year, is funded…1,292 pieces of legislation that passed and the governor handled all that…Over a thousand bills…a lot of studies…something like 800 studies that the executive branch produces for the legislature every year, but we’re still going to execute everything we talked about.”
Question: Does Gov. Northam support the redistricting amendment as it was passed by the General Assembly? He can’t veto or amend, but he can weigh in; this goes to the voters in November.
Mercer: “Coronavirus has delayed the Census…I think throws the timing of this constitutional amendment into question, and I think that’s something we’re going to have to tackle. We’ve got to figure out the timing of all that with the amendment. Folks have called for a special session. We worked to help with some of the enabling legislation that would help supplement that amendment, that would really articulate some of the priorities that that we share with members of the General Assembly, about making sure that communities of color are truly represented. I guess one of things that was interesting to observe during that debate, is that for years and years I’ve heard that the constitution is a sacred document, we shouldn’t change it; and if you do, you’ve got to make sure that it’s really well thought out, really well vetted…I guess I was just struck that the narrative has changed, that this amendment isn’t perfect and there are some issues with it, but we should put it in our constitution [anyway]. That message from a lot of folks who have always been very loud and fierce defenders of the constitution struck me as a bit odd. So we’ll see what the timing is now of the Census and how that affects this amendment and how you implement it if it were to pass, we’ll see how that all shakes out….Gov. Northam certainly came out in support of some of the enabling legislation that didn’t pass, some of the supplemental legislation, and weighed in on some of the concerns that he shared…wasn’t hard to read between the lines and realize that he shared some of the same concerns.”