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'I'm a better person': Northam reflects on his complex term

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RICHMOND—When Ralph Northam first decided to jump into politics, he wasn’t sure which party to join.

He chose the Democrats, and a decade and a half later—after a quick rise in politics and an explosive scandal that nearly drove him from office—the mild-mannered doctor from Virginia’s Eastern Shore is leaving office claiming to be the most progressive governor in the state’s history.

“I think at the end of the day, at the end of our four years, that I’m a better person. I certainly have learned a lot. And I think Virginia’s a better Commonwealth,” he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press about his political evolution, accomplishments, struggles and plans to return to his medical practice.

After campaigning as a moderate and easily winning election in 2017, Northam assembled a historically diverse Cabinet and quickly notched major successes during his first year in office. He secured a compromise with the then-GOP-controlled legislature to expand Medicaid, a long-sought Democratic priority, and announced Virginia had lured Amazon for its second headquarters, a project his office estimated would create 25,000 jobs.

Since then, he’s surpassed 100,000 jobs announcements, and Virginia has secured a coveted “Top State for Business” ranking twice. He led the state through the COVID-19 pandemic, promising to “follow the science,” and the state has seen fewer deaths and higher vaccination rates than many comparable ones. He’s leaving Virginia flush with cash, its reserve funds at record levels.

But Northam also spent much of his term attempting to recover from a controversy initially expected to drive him from office.

In early 2019, a conservative news outlet published a photo that appeared on his personal page in his 1984 medical school yearbook showing a person dressed in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam initially said he was in the photo and apologized, then later insisted he was not in it but acknowledged wearing blackface decades earlier to look like Michael Jackson for a dance contest.

The calls to resign were near-immediate and deafening.

After a couple of months out of the public view, he embarked on a listening tour to learn how he could make amends. He pledged to spend the rest of his term fighting for racial reconciliation and a greater acknowledgement of all parts of Virginia’s long history. Controversies the state’s attorney general and lieutenant governor subsequently faced were also seen as part of the reason he was not forced out.

Mark Bergman, a political adviser, said had the scandal not happened, Northam would not have had a term of such consequence.

“It was the event that gave him the North Star he needed to be a transformational governor,” Bergman said.

Northam went on to appoint a Cabinet-level diversity director tasked with making government more inclusive. He sought funding for a host of initiatives aimed at more prominently telling the story of Black history in the public sphere. He backed proposals to resolve racial disparities in maternal health, worked with the General Assembly to pass a host of criminal justice reforms and removed one of the country’s largest Confederate monuments.

Northam said the moment that most tested his leadership was responding to a May 2019 mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that killed 12 people. He said he vividly remembers visiting the wounded in the hospital.

He called the GOP-led General Assembly back to Richmond for a special session to address gun control. They stayed for less than two hours, taking no action.

“I really think that’s what led to gaining our majority in the House that that fall,” he said.

The Senate flipped that year, too, and with unified control of state government, Democrats ripped through their priorities.

Over the past two years, Northam signed into law bill after bill that set Virginia apart from many of its Southern neighbors. The state tightened gun laws, legalized marijuana, loosened abortion restrictions, ended the death penalty, massively expanded voting access, added legal protections for LGBTQ people and raised the minimum wage.

When voters got a chance to weigh in again in November’s elections, they opted to hand the reins to Republicans—electing them to all three of Virginia’s statewide offices and a majority in the state House.

Northam said he doesn’t see the results as a reflection on his legacy. Instead, he said he didn’t think Democrats spent enough time talking “about what we’ve been able to accomplish” during campaigns that became largely focused on national issues.

His relationship has remained tense with the state’s Republican legislators, who have accused him of departing from the moderate message he ran on and suggested his priority has been repairing his own legacy. They were angered, for instance, after he walked back a promise to institute a work requirement as part of Medicaid expansion.

“Ralph Northam is leaving office as his own lost cause, condescendingly lecturing us all from some assumed moral high ground because he read the book ‘Roots’ and then went on a nonstop reconciliation tour,’” the new House Speaker, Todd Gilbert, tweeted as Northam was giving his final address to lawmakers this week.

Like all Virginia governors, Northam was prohibited from seeking a second consecutive term. He is set to leave office Saturday, when Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin will be sworn in.

As for the yearbook matter, two investigations into the photo were inconclusive, and no one else has ever taken public responsibility for it. He told AP that who was in the picture is less important than the work that’s been done because of it.

“What weighs on me is what I put ... Virginia through. The hurt that I saw,” he said.

Northam’s supporters and his loyal staff universally describe him as a deeply kind man and empathetic leader shaped by the decades he spent caring for seriously ill children as a pediatric neurologist.

An Army veteran with a soft Southern accent and a friendly, low-key style, Northam said that in his earlier years he never thought of himself as a Democrat or Republican. He took a look at both when making his first run for office, he said, and decided the Democrats were a better fit. The party, in his view, has a bigger tent and is more committed to helping everyone.

The 62-year-old now plans to return to his medical practice in Norfolk. He has appointments scheduled beginning Monday, he said.

He wouldn’t rule out another run for office some day and said his wife, Pam Northam, has also been approached as a candidate. But he said they are looking forward to returning to their private lives.

“I don’t think anybody’s gonna see my name on a ballot anytime soon,” he said.

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