RICHMOND — Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam has the weight of a Democratic landslide to throw around in the State Capitol, but he's holding back.
He could pluck a few Republicans out of the General Assembly — where the GOP is holding onto the majority by a thread — and give them jobs in his Cabinet to tilt the balance of power toward Democrats. He could try to ram through a broad expansion of Medicaid and other Democratic priorities.
But Northam says he is not looking to vanquish the other side.
After an ugly gubernatorial campaign ended in a surprising Democratic sweep that reverberated across the nation, voters don’t want showboating, he said.
"Virginians deserve civility," Northam said Friday in his first extended interview since he beat Republican Ed Gillespie by nine points on Nov. 7. "They're looking for a moral compass right now."
The Virginia results were widely interpreted as a repudiation by voters of Donald Trump’s first year in the White House. The Republican president proved so unpopular that a wave of Democrats swept into office; in the House of Delegates, a 66-34 Republican majority vanished.
The GOP is hanging onto a 51-49 edge, with recounts underway in three close races. The outcome was a harbinger of the Democratic tide that upended the Senate race in Alabama last week and set the stage for elections nationwide next year.
Northam said he was proud of his campaign, despite criticism that both he and Gillespie turned negative in the closing weeks.
He blamed Gillespie for inflaming the rhetoric by focusing on the Latino street gang MS-13 and suggesting Northam wanted to restore voting rights to a pedophile. And he took issue with r ecent comments from Gillespie, who complained that politics have grown too "poisonous."
“Some of what makes it toxic is things like MS-13 ads and pedophile ads,” Northam said. “So, you know, I think his campaign really needs to sit and think about how they ran and maybe in the future to talk more about the issues and maybe run a more positive campaign.”
Northam, a doctor and former state senator who has spent the past four years as lieutenant governor, will face some tough dynamics within his own party.
A moderate Democrat who was once courted to switch parties by the Republicans, Northam was never a natural standard-bearer for the progressive activists who helped power the Democratic elections this year. Some in the new wave of delegates coming to Richmond have been openly critical of the party’s establishment.
Northam has been meeting with each of the freshman lawmakers, urging them to pull together — and to look beyond partisan differences.
His advice to them: “Learn the system, number one. And really make good relationships on both sides of the aisle. . . . I’ll try to lead that. We talk about the doctor being in, healing, and I’ll try to bring people together and emphasize doing what’s in the best interest of Virginia. You’ll see that in my inauguration speech.”
That’s echoed in his promise not to try to engineer a Democratic advantage in the legislature. Other governors with a closely divided House or Senate have dangled well-paying Cabinet jobs to lure a lawmaker from the opposite party to leave the Assembly and tilt the balance of power.
It has been widely assumed that Northam is considering such a move, with Republicans holding a 21-19 edge in the state Senate and incoming Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, in a position to break tie votes. But Northam ruled that out.
“I have let our people know that I will work with the legislature that was elected by the people,” he said. “I’m not approaching anybody . . . in the Senate or the House.”
Similarly, Northam said he has no plans to try to force Republicans to accept a broad expansion of Medicaid. Instead, he has begun talks with lawmakers in both parties about overhauling the state’s Medicaid system to expand access to health care while better defining eligibility to control costs.
Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) tried every year to push the legislature to accept millions in federal money to expand the health program to hundreds of thousands of low-income Virginians. Northam campaigned heavily on the promise of getting more Virginians access to health care.
He said Friday that he remains committed to that pledge, but that he must be careful about obligating the state to escalating costs. Under the program, the federal government pays the lion’s share in the early years but the state contribution gradually increases. “Medicaid is growing in Virginia by 5 to 7 percent, in that ballpark, every year,” he said.
“So I look forward to . . . seeing how we can provide better service and at the same time cut costs” through “managed-care Medicaid,” he said.
A managed system would involve rewarding “healthy choices,” he said. “I want people to have skin in the game. I want to incentivize people to really have good health.”
And although some people who need Medicaid cannot work — children, some pregnant women, people with certain disabilities — others can, he said. “I want to help them get back on the workforce [through] training,” he said.
He said he is consulting with legislators on both sides of the aisle to draw up the plans, as well as with retired state senator John Watkins, a Republican who worked on an earlier effort to create a state marketplace for private health insurance plans. “We’ll quickly move toward putting a group together and working on that this session,” Northam said. The General Assembly will convene Jan. 10.
Northam connects the effort — as McAuliffe always has — to a broader goal of improving the state’s economy.
“The top priority is just to kind of continue a lot of the work we’ve been doing over the last four years with our economy,” Northam said. “I would really be content if we could bring Virginia back to being the number one state in which to do business.”
He conceded that he can’t match McAuliffe’s salesmanship and manic dealmaking, and said the emphasis may shift from recruiting new employers to improving the climate for existing businesses.
That business-friendly, bipartisan message may be at odds with a national Democratic mood emphasizing “resistance.” In that climate, Virginia could be a test case for whether political unity is still a viable route.
Northam said national party figures have told him the Virginia results lifted up demoralized Democrats.
“The main message I’ve gotten is just, ‘Thank you for what you all did in Virginia. You’ve given this country and given our party hope again, and let people know that civility can still win,’ ” he said.
His campaign staff has gotten queries from people looking to strategize in some of the 36 gubernatorial races or various House and Senate races set for around the country next year, he said. But asked if he had heard anything from the recent Doug Jones campaign, Northam drew a blank.
“Doug . . . Jones . . .,” he repeated, before an aide reminded him: Alabama’s Senate race. “Oh, no, no, Jones and Moore,” he said. “From just a couple nights ago. No, they didn’t [reach out], not that I know of.”
Northam has yet to take any time off since the election and, aside from speaking engagements, has been swamped with interviewing job candidates for the Cabinet or state agencies. In his transition office near the Capitol, he constantly hears the roar and beeping of crews demolishing the old General Assembly office building next door.
Symbolic or not, that demolition fits with what Northam says is a drive to push ideas of openness into state government. He’d like new state offices to be built with open floor plans, and hopes to have the governor’s office outfitted with glass. He’d like more parking for visitors to the Capitol.
A classic-car buff who restored a 1953 Oldsmobile with his brother and tinkers on a 1971 Corvette, Northam lit up when he said he’d like to invite car clubs to hold shows around the Executive Mansion and Capitol. Provided, he added, he can get permission from Susan Clarke Schaar, the longtime clerk of the Senate who keeps a tight rein on decorum.
“We’ve also had discussions with the Richmond Raceway to bring one of my cars out there and do like an exhibit,” he said. The point would be to show that he was able to do the restoration because he learned the skills in school, “and to really interest or excite children that there’s a future in those things,” he said.
Northam’s own future ambition is unclear. He hesitated to run for lieutenant governor four years ago but McAuliffe persuaded him. At least one Democratic official said recently that Northam has said he has no desire to run for anything after being governor.
But on Friday, he dodged that question.
“You know, I guess you can’t — never say never,” he said, laughing. “I’m not sure what I’ll be doing in four years, but all I want to do right now is concentrate on being the best governor I can be for Virginia.”