The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Relaxed and reflective, Gov. Ralph Northam considers scandal-charged year

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) greets legislators after he delivered his budget briefing Dec. 17.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) greets legislators after he delivered his budget briefing Dec. 17. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam grinned like a kid who left a frog in the teacher's desk. He was supposed to be talking about big priorities in the $135 billion state budget he had just presented to lawmakers. But he was excited about one provision that was a teenage dream for someone who grew up tinkering on old cars: ending Virginia's requirement for annual vehicle safety inspections.

“It was kind of — that’s one of — yeah,” he said, and cast a sly look at his handlers. “We can talk about it later.”

Sometimes, it’s fun to be governor.

That hasn’t seemed true for Northam for much of this year. Just 10 months ago, the soft-spoken doctor from the Eastern Shore stumbled his way through a blackface scandal that brought national ridicule and nearly drove him from office. After refusing to step down, Northam promised to devote the rest of his term to fighting racial inequity.

The budget he presented Tuesday is the culmination of a year-long effort to rebuild public trust. And his relaxed mood in a 25-minute, sit-down interview with The Washington Post showed how much he has eased back into his job.

“I don’t think there’s any question that February was very difficult for Virginia,” Northam (D) said. “I chose to continue to do what I was elected to do, and Virginians stuck with me, and I appreciate that.”

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Polls show voters gradually restoring approval to Northam’s performance in office. African American leaders and lawmakers never rescinded their calls for him to resign but have praised his efforts to tackle issues of race.

Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said the pain of February led to a much-needed reckoning.

“We took the Band-Aid off,” Bagby said. “The most painful part of taking the Band-Aid off is the initial feeling. And after that we have been all focused on the lives of individuals that have been marginalized in the commonwealth for so long, and how do we make their lives better.”

In November, voters gave Democrats majorities in both the House of Delegates and state Senate for the first time in a generation, meaning Northam has consolidated power to pull off an ambitious agenda.

“I’m excited about it,” he said. “A lot of the things that I’ve advocated for and that I think a lot of other Democrats have advocated for — now we have the reality of moving those forward.”

He rattled off a list:

● Funding early-childhood education.

●Tuition-free community college for poor people seeking job skills.

●Spending big — $733 million — on the environment and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, where Northam grew up.

●Setting up a state health-care marketplace to build on the expansion of Medicaid, which he pushed through the General Assembly last year.

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The most contentious effort — gun control — will arguably be at the top of the agenda when the General Assembly convenes in January. It became a statewide priority after a gunman killed 12 people in a Virginia Beach municipal building in May.

“This is a tough issue to have a discussion about,” Northam said. “Let’s sit down . . . and maybe find some things that we can agree on.”

Northam has proposed a package of eight measures, including restricting handgun purchases to one per month, requiring owners to report lost or stolen firearms, banning certain types of assault-style weapons and a “red flag” law allowing authorities to temporarily seize guns from someone deemed a threat.

Amid fierce opposition in rural parts of the state, Democrats say they would not seek a retroactive ban that would outlaw assault-style weapons people already own.

In the interview, Northam returned repeatedly to the topic of equity. Ending high maternal mortality rates for black women. Building more LGBTQ protections into state law. And he pointed to steps he’s taken throughout the year to get at changing some of the state’s institutions.

He appointed a commission to comb through the state’s laws and find examples of Jim Crow-era racist language that he’ll ask the legislature to remove. He set up a board to revamp the way public schools teach African American history. He demanded the removal of Jefferson Davis’s name from a memorial park at Fort Monroe, and he says he’ll sign a law giving localities the ability to take down Confederate statues.

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Northam, who last sat down for an interview with The Post in February, still can’t explain the origins of the scandal — a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

When the picture surfaced Feb. 1 on a conservative website, Northam took responsibility for it. But a day later he disavowed the photo, though he admitted darkening his face for a dance contest that same year.

An investigation by Eastern Virginia Medical School failed to solve the mystery of who was in the picture, concluding that there was no evidence the governor was lying.

And there it sits, a painful episode that still makes Northam uncomfortable.

Asked whether the public shame has made him a better governor, Northam sat back and rubbed his head. “My hair’s gotten a little bit grayer,” he said. Then he leaned forward and put his hands over his eyes.

“I think it has raised the level of awareness regarding race and inequity,” he said, looking up again. “It has allowed us to maybe refocus on some things that wouldn’t have been done in the past. And that’s a good thing. Now we’re able to take action.”

The interview 10 months ago was early on a Saturday morning, but Northam was already in a suit and tie when he greeted his visitors at the door to the Executive Mansion. He seemed pale and chastened, almost nervous, as he poured coffee for a reporter and photographer.

On Tuesday he was a different man. Jacket off, arms loose, Northam was relaxed and radiated confidence. The rooms around his office in the Patrick Henry Building have been redecorated with images that reflect his background — antique maps of the Eastern Shore, photographs of marshes and fishing boats.

The nearby Executive Mansion is festooned with holiday lights and evergreen garland. Cheerful crowds swoop in from the cold for receptions, fireplaces burning.

On the spot where Northam gave his awkward, nationally televised news conference in February stands a Christmas tree decorated with the names of every Virginia city and county.

“Look at what we’ve done,” Northam said in the interview. “And I’m not finished. I’ve got two more years.”

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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