Interview #4 – Ralph Northam

INTERVIEW #4 – LT. GOV. RALPH NORTHAM

Ralph Northam is the current Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, serving since 2014. He graduated from Virginia Military institute in 1981 and earned his MD from Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1984. He went on to serve as a US Army physician. After leaving the army he served as a pediatric neurologist.

Doctor Northam was elected to the Virginia Senate in 2007, where he served until his election as Lieutenant Governor. He is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor of Virginia.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW

[0:12] Alex Hendel (Virginia Review of Politics): Many outside observers see this Gubernatorial election as one over the future of the Democratic Party. What do you see as the future of the Party? 

Lt. Governor Ralph Northam: Obviously, the future of the party is to be progressive, and to have a large tent is very important. We’ve always had that philosophy as Democrats, and as we travel around Virginia and listen to voters, I think there are several things that are on their minds.

Number one is that there’s a tremendous amount of anti-Trump and anti-Washington sentiment, so they’re looking for someone who will stand up to Washington and make sure that that influence doesn’t come across the Potomac River.

They also say that they want a job that they can support themselves and their families with. They want to make sure that their families have access to affordable and quality healthcare. There’s a lot of concern in that area right now, especially with the uncertainty in Washington. You probably just heard, but 23 million Americans now are at risk, if [the House] plan goes through, of losing coverage. That’s just unamerican, it’s immoral.

[Voters] want to make sure that their children have access to world class education. They want someone that will promote social and racial equality in Virginia, and promote inclusivity. That’s very important to a lot of people. They want to make sure that our environment is safe and clean, especially our air and water. Finally, they want to live in communities where there are not guns on every street corner. Those are the things that we hear as we travel around, and I think those are the things that are important to Democrats in Virginia.

[2:09] Alex: You were trained as a doctor. How do you believe that can help you address the opioid epidemic?

Lt. Gov. Northam: That’s a great question, and if you talked about our greatest challenge in Virginia right now, it would be the opioid crisis. Last year we lost 806 Virginians to opioid overdose; this year we’ve lost over a thousand. That’s more than die from motor vehicle accidents. We should all find that unacceptable. I have a unique perspective, being a doctor, on that particular issue.

We’re really working hard, reaching out to our medical schools, and dealing with young doctors, and training providers, making sure they’re looking at different ways of treating acute and chronic pain. [We’re] also talking to older providers like myself, saying we need to take a different approach. We’ve done a lot of work with law enforcement: there are far too many individuals that have narcotics issues that are in our prisons rather than receiving the help that they need.

Finally, just recently, we did a blanket prescription for Naloxone, which means that if you, a friend, or family is at risk for having an opioid overdose, you can now go into a pharmacy, and no questions asked, ask for a dose of [Naloxone] without a prescription. The Governor, the Attorney General, and I are working very closely together with communities, and we go around, and have focus groups, and really try to educate and bring awareness to the challenge. So I’ve been able to hopefully make a change as physician.

[3:55] Alex: What is your stance on repealing the so-called “tampon tax,” where feminine hygiene products are not tax exempt?

Lt. Gov. Northam: That’s another good question, because most men don’t have a clue. It’s out of sight, out of mind for them. It’s a very, very regressive tax. The way I would look at it, it’s not a luxury for women, it’s a necessity. We should repeal that tax.

We also need to help individuals of low income, because we always focus on affordable housing, and making sure they can pay their heating bill, and making sure they have groceries – we have the food bank and those types of things – but nobody ever talks about the need for feminine hygiene products.

If you take a teenager, as an example, if she doesn’t have the means to have those products, then once a month, for four or five days, she may not be able to go to school. It really gets back to what I said earlier about social justice: it’s helping those that don’t have a voice. In this case, in answer to your question, we need to repeal that tax.

There was actually a bill this year. Jennifer Bosko, delegate from up in Northern Virginia put that bill in, and it didn’t pass, which I think is unfortunate, because I think it was a good idea and a very necessary bill.

[5:38] Alex: How do you think we can encourage more participation in elections, especially in non-Presidential election years and among young voters?

Lt. Gov. Northam: I think you do it by listening, and then encouraging young people that this is your future. I’m in my late 50’s; they’re getting ready to put me in the pasture, but your future is ahead of you. Not only for you, but for your children. So we have groups like the Young Democrats, and we like to go onto college campuses and register voters, and listen to what’s on their mind. Things like college affordability, inclusivity, and access to women’s reproductive health care.

All of these things are important, but just talking to people and letting them know that when we don’t take elections seriously, then we see things like what’s happening in Washington right now. We can’t let that happen again. I think in travelling around Virginia, there’s a lot of enthusiasm and energy. People are coming out and saying “how can I get involved, what can I do to help?” That’s because of what they see in Washington. We’re looking at a fairly good turnout for a primary, on June 13th, but I think the turnout on November 7th in Virginia will be massive. There’s going to be a tremendous amount of focus on Virginia, because it’s the first election after what we saw in 2016.

[7:10] Alex: Do you think there any specific policy proposals that you think would better encourage voting or voter turnout?

Lt. Gov. Northam: One in particular is college affordability and student loans. The reason I say that is because Pam and I have two children: Wes went to William & Mary and Aubrey went to UVA. That’s a major concern of young people, and it’s also a major concern of parents like myself. We think that everybody should have the opportunity to live the American Dream, and that starts with access to a world-class education system. I think that another thing that we need to talk about with your age group is nonpartisan redistricting. If we’re going to make democracy strong in Virginia, then nonpartisan redistricting should at the top of the priority list. After nonpartisan redistricting, the next step should be campaign finance reform. If I were your age and starting to pay attention, those would be some issues I would pay particular attention to.

[8:23] Alex: The next governor will preside over redistricting in 2021. What is the importance of who is in the Governor’s mansion? 

Lt. Gov. Northam: Right now, the Republicans hold the majority in both the House and the Senate. I think with the energy we’re seeing across Virginia, we’re going to pick up a number of Delegates seats this year. I hope that we get our majority back in the House. As you know, we have 34 Democrats, so we need 17 to get to 51. Then in 2019, the Senate will be up. We have 19 Democrats and 21 Republicans, so we need to to pick up one or two seats in the Senate.

But let’s take worst case scenario and say that we don’t, and that we still have a Republican controlled House and Senate, then the only thing that can be a brick wall to the gerrymandering is the Democratic governor. The way that will work is that the legislature will bring a bill to the Governor’s desk. If it’s fair, and the Governor agrees, then it could be signed, but if it’s the continued gerrymandering, which I suspect it would be, the Governor can say “I’m not going to accept this, let’s sit down at the table and make it fair,” or he could just veto it. If he vetoed it, and that veto was upheld by the legislature, then it would be turned over to the courts, and the courts would draw the lines. That’s the last thing that [Virginia Republicans] want to happen, because [districts] would be drawn fairly. So it’s important to have a Democrat in the Governor’s office for that reason.

[10:00] Alex: What’s your opinion on bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting commissions?

Lt. Gov. Northam: Well I patroned that when I was in the Senate, so I’m very familiar with that. I’m a big supporter of nonpartisan redistricting. What would happen each year is it would pass in the Senate, and then it would go to an early morning subcommittee in the House with no recorded votes. Even just last year, they did the same thing and defeated it. So I’m a major advocate of nonpartisan redistricting. The reality of it is, it’s not a Republican or Democratic thing. Whoever is in office and has power, they’re going to draw the lines to their benefit. Whether it be Democrats in power or Republicans, we need to have nonpartisan redistricting, because at the end of the day, people like you should be choosing your representatives, rather than the politicians choosing their voters.

[11:05] Alex: You recently called for legislation capping political contributions to state campaigns while banning corporate donations entirely. However, during your political career, you have accepted over $700,000 in corporate donations, including over $100,000 from Dominion Power, Virginia’s biggest corporate donor. How do you justify this dichotomy?

Lt. Gov. Northam: First of all, I teach medical ethics at the medical school in Norfolk, and if you look at finances in healthcare, back in the early 80’s, physicians and providers were taken on trips and encouraged to prescribe certain medicines, and that’s evolved to the point where now as a doctor, I don’t even take so much as a pen. So we’ve made a lot of progress in healthcare. I’d like to see that same thing happen in politics. If you sit here though, and say you take money from Dominion, or you take money from Altria, or you take money from the National Rifle Association...I mean you could go right down the list and say “I don’t think it’s good to take money from those individual companies, that’s really a band-aid. We don’t need a band-aid solution, we need to have comprehensive finance reform. I hear people say things like “you should give that money back.” Well in the system that we’re in, that’s what I would call “disarming unilaterally.” That’s not a good idea. In order to do it fairly, everybody has to do it at the same time. It would be like – to use an army analogy – I’m not going to lay down my arms if the other side doesn’t, because my soldiers will be at risk. So both sides have to do it at the same time in order to be fair.  

[13:13] Alex: Your opponent in the Democratic primary, Tom Perriello, touts his “conviction politics” approach. Do you adhere more to the delegate or trustee model of politics?

Lt. Gov. Northam: Well I think it’s both. Not to be a cop-out on you, but when you represent a district – I represented the 6th Senate district, which is the Eastern Shore and Norfolk, and a little bit of Virginia Beach and Mathews County – if there was an issue that directly affected, let’s say, the watermen in my district, then I would certainly pay attention to that, and to their needs. On the other side of that, if there are what I would call “progressive Democratic values” that we should all believe in, like marriage equality, like responsible gun ownership, like women’s access to reproductive healthcare, then I think you have to look at the bigger picture and do what’s in the best interests of our party. So it depends on what issue you’re talking about, whether it’s a local issue or a statewide issue.

[14:48] Alex: What single piece of legislation would you most like to sign into law if elected?

Lt. Gov. Northam: There are a couple areas. As governor, I think your number one responsibility is the economy in Virginia. We certainly want to promote, and we have been, and we will continue to promote, economic opportunity for all Virginians, no matter who you are, no matter where you are. The second piece that I would say is important, as a doctor, is healthcare, and making sure that all Virginians have access to affordable and quality care. The best way I can do that through the legislature right now is signing Medicaid expansion: We’ve given over $10 billion away to surrounding states who we compete with. And then the last thing is – I’m an educator as well as a doctor – if at the end of my term I can know that all children in Virginia have access to Pre-K education, then I will feel like I’ve done a good job.

[16:03] Alex: What piece of legislation have you been most proud of sponsoring or passing?

Lt. Gov. Northam: Well, there’s a couple, but the most powerful piece of legislation, I think, is the smoking ban in restaurants. If you think about the influence that the tobacco industry has in Virginia – that was early in my Senate career, to take that on and be able to get that passed in a bipartisan way. It took me two years, but I kept trying and I kept working with people from both sides of the aisle. So that was an important piece of legislation that I think has made Virginia healthier.

The second one is the work that I did with concussions in our student athletes: making sure that they’re safe. We certainly encourage them to participate in sports, but there were really no guidelines and criteria on how to diagnose concussions. So again, that was a bipartisan effort.

The the third area, environmentally, I laid the groundwork to have a program to address sea level rise. As a scientist, I believe in science, and I believe that global warming and climate change are real, so I took the lead on making sure that we were able to address sea level rise, especially in Hampton Roads.  

[17:22] Alex: On June 13th and on November 7th, why should people, especially young people, vote for you?

Lt. Gov. Northam: Number one, I can win in Virginia. I ran in a tough race in ‘07. I ran against an eight year incumbent in a 58% Republican district, and I won by ten talking about the same values that we’re talking about today. Then in ‘13, I ran in a primary and in general, which were both statewide, and I received more votes than any person in Virginia history in an off year election. So I know how to win, number one.

Number two, I’m unwavering in my advocacy for progressive Democratic values, whether they be economic opportunity, or access to women’s reproductive healthcare, or fighting for responsible gun ownership, or fighting for the environment. So if people know my record, they will realize that I’ve been consistent in those areas.

Thirdly, I can stand up and fight against what’s going on in Washington. I’ve been doing that over the past few years. And then finally, I think one of the most important things is experience: I’ve been in this for ten years, I know how to get things done in Richmond, I have good relationships with people on both sides of the aisle. You know, the Governor gets four years, so you have to hit the ground running, and you have to know what your agenda is, and I bring all those qualities to the table.