RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) took office a year ago this week as the quiet man of Virginia politics, a departure from high-octane predecessors such as Terry McAuliffe, Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner.
But the country doctor with a bedtime-story speaking style soars into his second legislative session with a gaudy record of accomplishments that threatens to eclipse those of his mentors.
Northam, 59, oversaw the expansion of Medicaid after four years of failed attempts by Democrats. He reached bipartisan deals on lowering the felony threshold, overhauling state regulations and establishing dedicated funding for Metro. Amazon chose Virginia as one of its new headquarters, the unemployment rate is at a historic low and more than a billion dollars in new revenue is streaming into state coffers this year.
For all that success, it’s fair to question how much credit Northam gets and how much is simply good timing and luck. And the next six weeks of the General Assembly will test whether he can maintain bipartisan relationships that enabled delicate compromises or whether pressure from Democrats to seize the momentum will push Northam into partisan standoffs.
“The blue wave is cresting in Virginia and Northam is riding it very skillfully,” said longtime state political analyst Bob Holsworth. “One could add it all up and say that he is the beneficiary of good fortune, but one has to say that skillful politicians take advantage of their good fortune. This year is a little more of a challenge for him.”
Already, some cracks are evident. Northam has outraged progressives in his party by having a cozy relationship with corporate titan Dominion Energy and what has looked like favorable treatment of its controversial natural gas pipeline project.
He stung his closest Republicans allies last fall by taking a hard line on a legislative redistricting case, and some say his proposed amendments to the state budget — in which Northam bestows some $2.1 billion in new money on an array of beneficiaries — amount to overreach.
“My assessment is good and bad. A good man inherently, one whose door is open, [who] you can talk to,” said House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), whose cooperation has been key to several of Northam’s legislative victories. “As far as his accomplishments go — mixed bag. I think certainly the economy has very little to do with his policies. As a matter of fact, I actually think his policies this year will hurt the economy. I was disappointed with his budget.”
With a short, 46-day session, and with all 140 seats in the House and state Senate up for election this fall, the challenge only gets tougher for Northam to keep his winning streak alive into a second year.
Northam’s political career has always seemed a bit charmed.
He won the first time he ran for state Senate in Norfolk, just 12 years ago, against a vulnerable Republican incumbent. He had to be talked into running for lieutenant governor in 2012 and then he trounced another weak opponent. And Northam rolled up a huge win for governor in 2017 as Democrats used the state election to demonstrate anger at President Trump, unseating 15 Republicans in the House of Delegates.
The nearly evenly split House — Republicans clung to a 51-49 majority — gave Northam clout to cut his signature deal last year on expanding Medicaid. Several House Republicans, including Cox, joined Democrats in supporting the plan.
In a recent interview with reporters and editors at The Washington Post, Northam shared credit for the Medicaid breakthrough. “That would have never happened, period, if we hadn’t have shifted those 15 seats,” he said. “It brought people to the table because the writing was on the wall and I think [Republicans] knew that Virginians wanted to expand coverage.”
Asked how much credit he deserves for his glittery, first-year record, Northam first responded with a joke: “Well, I’m responsible for everything,” he said, then laughed and quickly added: “No no no, put your pen down. No. A lot of it is timing.”
Efforts to woo Amazon, for instance, went back to October 2017 — well into McAuliffe’s administration. And McAuliffe, the consummate wheeler-dealer, was aided by Republicans on a joint legislative panel called the Major Employment and Investment project approval commission, which reviewed all proposed incentives. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The part of his record where Northam is quick to take credit is for being open to bipartisan discussions on almost anything. He famously admitted to voting twice for Republican George W. Bush for president before entering politics, and early in his state Senate career flirted with switching parties.
“The responsibility that I can take is that I have good relationships with people on both sides of the aisle and have been able to bring people to the table,” Northam said.
Republicans in the legislature will back that up. “I’ve always found him good to work with,” said Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), who has control over the state’s purse strings as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “We don’t always agree on issues, but we agree to discuss and work through items.”
But Northam has shown some limits.
Last summer, federal judges ordered Virginia to redraw boundaries for 11 House of Delegates districts over racial gerrymandering. Jones, who had helped create the original map, began working on a new plan with support from a handful of Democrats in Hampton Roads, including members of the Black Caucus.
Northam signaled that he would not accept their map, effectively ending the General Assembly’s efforts and sending the redistricting back to federal court.
“It was very clear to me in my conversation with the governor that this was all about party politics for him, that he would not sign anything regardless of what it was,” Jones said. “In essence, it was his team versus our team, which was very disappointing.”
Asked whether he issued a blanket refusal, Northam hesitated. “I don’t know if I used those words,” he said, “but I said I wouldn’t sign it if it wasn’t fair. And what they proposed was not fair in that it didn’t eliminate the racially packed districts.”
Northam said Democrats involved in that effort backed off “as we went around and talked to them and I think educated them that, well, this plan is really not in everybody’s best interest.” In an unusually strong-arm tactic, Northam pulled out of a fundraiser for one of the Democrats who had worked with Jones, Del. Stephen E. Heretick of Portsmouth.
And while Northam pleased Republicans with a call for dialogue in last week’s State of the Commonwealth speech, his proposed budget has teed up a showdown.
The federal tax cuts that Trump signed in 2017 left Virginia’s tax code out of sync, and the differences mean some $1.2 billion in extra revenue could flow into state coffers. Still more new money is expected from the improving economy.
Calling it a “unique opportunity,” Northam submitted a plan that funds a low-income tax break and layers money on rural broadband, the Norfolk Botanical Garden and pay raises for teachers, as well as stocking up the state’s rainy-day reserves.
Budget staffers said they have seldom seen such an extensive spending plan, and Jones has called it “fiscally irresponsible.”
“It was obvious to me after the presentation that this was more of a political document than a public policy document,” Jones said.
His counterpart in the Senate — Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who chairs the Finance Committee — said Northam has created “a significant impasse” by assuming the legislature will go along with spending the extra money. Republicans prefer using the funds to create broader tax cuts.
Combined with other Northam priorities, such as putting restrictions on gun ownership and loosening restrictions on voting, Norment said the governor seems to be playing to a progressive Democratic base this year.
“Perhaps he has overestimated the portability of bipartisanship,” Norment said. “Just because there was some bipartisanship on Medicaid expansion, I don’t know that that is portable to a number of these other issues.”
But for Democrats who have spent years in the legislature under Republican control, Northam’s assertiveness is a lovely thing.
“While some may mistake him for being a laid-back country boy, the fact is he’s a man of conviction and substance,” said Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) — who, aside from a two-year gap, has served in the House since 1978. “He inherited a good set of circumstances and said, ‘Let’s build on that.’ ”
Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University who has watched Northam’s rise, said he isn’t surprised that the governor would run with the budget after such a big first year. “His predecessors would’ve loved to have a situation where you’re trying to spend so much money,” he said.
And while Northam has proved unusually adept at balancing between rising Democrats and worried Republicans, his reputation for niceness “is disarming. . . . He can push his elbows out,” Kidd said.
For his part, Northam says the budget and his legislative proposals are an opening gambit, that his door is open for negotiation. But he’s clear about who holds the stronger hand.
“The Republicans are going to have to make a decision, are we going to support some of these measures or are we going to play hardball?” Northam said. “And I think if they play hardball — and again, I’m not here to give advice to anybody — but if they do play hardball, I think they’re going to see the impact of that in the November elections.”