It’s hard to remember now, but when Ralph Northam was elected governor in 2017, he was widely considered to be someone who probably wouldn’t make much of a mark. His predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, fancied himself a larger-than-life character who liked to do dramatic things — like trying to restore the rights of every convicted felon with one stroke of the pen (something the Virginia Supreme Court soon told him he couldn’t do). Northam, a mild-mannered former legislator, was considered an incrementalist.
Funny how things turn out.
Now the question that needs to be asked is this: Has any other Virginia governor presided over as much change as Northam has? The Northam administration has turned out to be dizzingly transformational.
Granted, not all of those changes have been initiated by the governor himself, and not everyone is going to think those changes have been for the best. But it’s undeniable that those changes have taken place — many of them things considered unthinkable not that long ago.
McAuliffe tried for four years to get Virginia to expand Medicaid, and failed all four years. Northam got it done in his first months in office. Granted, Northam had a political advantage that McAuliffe did not: His election swept in an unexpected number of Democratic legislators, eroding the Republican majority in the House of Delegates to the point that made it easier to peel off some rural Republicans who finally agreed that Medicaid expansion would help their constituents.
Northam also got to announce what might stand as the biggest economic development news ever in Virginia — Amazon’s decision to locate its vaunted HQ2 in Arlington. Once again, Northam got lucky: It was McAuliffe’s administration that put in the initial bid.
For some governors, either of those events would stand as a major legacy. Now consider all that’s come since: Northam has signed major revisions in the state’s gun laws and a major overhaul of criminal justice laws.
More symbolically, he’s the governor who called for the Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue to come down — and went to court to make it happen, winning a legal victory that’s now on appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. More substantively, he forced out the superintendent of Virginia Military Institute and set in motion a formal investigation into racism at the Lexington school. Northam didn’t personally take down the statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at VMI, but he was certainly instrumental in the events that led to its departure.
Likewise, Northam didn’t personally authorize Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth to allow casinos — but he did sign the legislation that allowed each of them to hold a local referendum on the issue, knowing full well they’d likely vote yes. Meanwhile, he did call for Virginia to legalize marijuana — and the state now appears headed down that road. He also signed into law that made Virginia the first southern state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation — include the introduction of a non-binary option on driver’s licenses. Also a bill calling for a carbon-free electric grid.
Confederate statues out; gun laws, casinos, legal pot, LGBT rights, green energy in — that’s a pretty big cultural shift, and that’s not even an all-inclusive list.
It’s possible that all of this would have happened even if some other Democrat had been elected in 2017. It’s not as if Northam came into office vowing to legalize pot, for instance. “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. That’s certainly true here, because mankind has been ridden pretty hard lately. Another Democrat might have even done more, such as try to block the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Many of these changes can be traced back to specific events: Northam said during his campaign he thought Confederate statues should come down but the death of George Floyd set off a more vigorous reappraisal of Confederate imagery than had been going on before. Northam was always in favor of new gun laws but the shooting at the Virginia Beach municipal building that killed 12 people heightened the push for stricter laws. And the 2020 election saw even conservative states such as South Dakota and Montana vote in legal marijuana — making it much easier to push the issue in Virginia.
The real event that drove many of these changes happened before Northam was even elected. Virginia had been trending Democratic at the statewide level well before Donald Trump was elected although Republicans still held firm control of the General Assembly — and not even the most optimistic Democrats saw that changing as long as House members were being elected in lines drawn by Republicans. Instead, suburban voters recoiled from Trump, and came out in unexpectedly large numbers in 2017 to vote against Republicans. Democrats made unexpected gains that year and then two years later won control of the entire General Assembly. Northam gets the credit (or blame, if you prefer) for presiding over a lot of these legal and social changes, but the real impetus was Trump.
Thought experiment: If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 presidential election, would Democrats have made big gains in the 2017 legislative races? Based on historical trends, not very likely. Maybe Northam would have still won, maybe he wouldn’t have, but it’s unlikely that he’d have ever had a Democratic General Assembly to govern with him. Had Republicans stayed in power, many of these things — particularly the new gun laws — would never have happened. Read that way, it’s really Trump’s election that brought down Confederate statues, ushered in tighter gun laws, led to LGBT protections, and all the rest — Northam is just the intermediary.
You can also debate how much Northam’s yearbook scandal changed his outlook on some of these issues. Without that, would he have called for the Lee statue to come down, or gotten so involved in VMI? Ultimately, any alternative history question is unanswerable, but we’ve certainly seen other Democrats take a stand against Confederate statues and it would have been hard for any governor to ignore the allegations at VMI, although responses might have been different. In any case, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, it’s the man in the arena who gets the credit (or the blame) and Northam has been the man in the arena — or the governorship — here. So we ask again: Has any other Virginia governor presided over as much change as Northam has? Not since Mills Godwin in the ‘60s, at least.
The Roanoke Times
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