As he prepares to leave office, Ralph Northam reflects on COVID-19 and advancing equity
Reporter's note: Virginia's governors have to leave office after four years, which Governor Ralph Northam will do this week. Ahead of his last day on the job, January 15th, I sat down with him to look back at his term. We focused on two topics. The first is COVID-19 and state's response, although we spoke before the current wave of infections and hospitalizations. The second is the discrimination and inequities Virginians of color, particularly Black Virginians, face and how Northam's personal history and his administration's policies are relevant to that discussion.
Jahd Khalil: I wanted to ask you about your response to the coronavirus pandemic first. Do you remember when you first heard about it and when you first became worried about it being a pandemic?
Governor Ralph Northam: Our first case was on March the 7th of 2020. And I think a lot of people thought, well, this would be just like a flu or that it would run its course and then move on. But it just, it kind of mushroomed. Initially the challenge was with PPE, and then we had the testing: you had a shortage of the reagents and the nasal swabs and then making sure that everybody had access to testing, so we worked through that.
So it was kind of like learning as you go. And if you look at the numbers we've had, certainly every death is significant in Virginia, but compared to other states, the number of deaths, the number of people in the hospitals are much lower. So I think by following the science and the data and having [a] good, open line of communication with Virginians, we're in a much better place than a lot of other states are.
Jahd Khalil: How do you think your work as a doctor influenced the way that you responded? And what did you learn about health versus public health?
Governor Ralph Northam: Sometimes the news that I have to give patients and especially their families, it's not good news. But I've always learned that people can handle the truth. That's really what I've tried to do as governor. But I always thought it was really important to make sure that people had access to accurate and adequate information. And so that's what we really tried to strive to do.
Jahd Khalil: There's a few kinds of mandates and actions that you took. Do you think that you could have gone further with some of those? I'm thinking about the state worker mandate having a bit more teeth or extending the length of indoor mask mandates. What do you think about what you could have done there?
Governor Ralph Northam: On one end of the spectrum there are people that are very worried about it and don't want to go outside, afraid that they'll contract the virus. And there's the other end of the spectrum that they just don't pay any mind to it. I understand a little bit about human nature, and so I've tried to make my decisions to keep people as healthy and as safe as we can. But, you know if you go too far, people would just say, “No, we're not doing that.” And so I've tried to work with Virginians and do the things that I thought would keep them the safest.
…you know, every death affects me and every person that dies, every person that loses their life, that's someone's family member. It might be their mom, their dad, their grandmother, might be their child. I look at the numbers every day and it's avoidable and that bothers me. And that's why I've really tried hard to encourage people to wear masks and to take this seriously and to get vaccinated.
Jahd Khalil: I want to shift now and talk about race during your time in office. After about a year in, a big scandal broke. A photo from your page in your Medical School yearbook surfaced. In it there was a person in blackface and another in a KKK robe. Now you maintain that it wasn’t you but it seemed like the calls for you to resign were universal. But you didn’t, and you had a lot of conversations with Black lawmakers and others in the following days. You’ve said you’ve listened and learned, can you describe what you mean by that? How did that inform what you did during your time in office?
Governor Ralph Northam: Well that was a very hurtful time for Virginia. And so what I did, I committed to listening to people and learning. I went on tours around Virginia. I read a lot. I watched documentaries. And so I committed to dealing with the inequities that existed before the yearbook incident. We had been working a lot of those, but it really came into much stronger focus after February of 2019. So I committed to learning … and what we've been able to do is turn a lot of what we learned into action.
Jahd Khalil: In America the definition of racism depends on who you ask. There’s this idea of racism as an idea: that some people are less than others. And there’s this idea that racism is a system that's often deliberately built into systems to enrich some people or it's knowing that the system helps some rather than others and ignoring that. Where do you think you fell on that question before this scandal and where do you think you were after?
Governor Ralph Northam: Well, there's a saying that I have, and I teach a lot to medical students and residents. And it says that the eyes can't see what the brain doesn't know. Sometimes if we don't understand our history, which we have a little bit over 400 years of. We went through slavery, massive resistance and the Jim Crow era and then mass incarceration. All of these things that if you're aware of what's going on around you, then you realize that those things exist. I'll give you a good example. One of the reasons why I felt so strongly about legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, [is that] people of color and white people use marijuana at the same frequency, yet people of color are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted. Well, there's a problem with that. To hear people talk about things like … critical race theory, which number one: we're not teaching that in our schools. It's really just a dog whistle. It provokes fear and anger and people, which are very strong emotions. But it's important to teach the truth.
Jahd Khalil: As a governor, you have access to a lot of information. Do you think that [race is] at the forefront of the way that you’re interpreting or reading into some of this data?
Northam: Absolutely. Because you know, one of the things that as a doctor, I'm a listener and, and certainly I've listened to a lot of Virginians and certainly listened to a lot of people of color and learned about what they've been through. And even as we sit here in 2021, that, that, they're concerned with access to healthcare and access to education and voting, all of these things are important. So if you listen and learn and certainly in a position that I have as governor, then you can take what you learn and turn it into action. And that's really what our administration [and] what I've been focused on for the last few years. As a result of that I think Virginia's a more welcoming, a more inclusive, Commonwealth. I mean, we're the first state to have a diversity equity and inclusion officer at a cabinet level position in Dr. Janice Underwood. She came in and took that position and built a program from the ground up. I'm proud that we were one of the first states to do that.
Jahd Khalil: [Concerning] the work that you were doing on equity and racial equity in your time in office there's kind of a prominent media narrative about that being an attempt at redemption or atonement, or that sort of thing. But there's a counter-narrative that you're the top Democrat in Virginia, that this is a democratic agenda that's going to be pushed forward. Is there a truth to either of those? Where do the actions on racial equity that you have done fall either within those two narratives or with something else?
Governor Ralph Northam: You know, I think a lot of what we've been working on regard equity. I'll give you another example: things like early childhood education to make sure that all of our three- and four-year-olds have, have access to early childhood education. I think a lot of these things were just by listening to what Virginia is wanted and to make sure that everybody had equal opportunity and was treated fairly and that we embrace diversity. So I've tried to listen to Virginians. And most of what we've been able to accomplish has been a result of that.
Jahd Khalil: We talked mostly about race and COVID, and those were kind of the most salient things during your term, but what do you think you're most proud of during your time in this office?
Governor Ralph Northam: There have been a lot of things. First of all, when I ran one of the things that I wanted to do was make sure that every Virginia had a job, and that they can support themselves and their families with it.We did a lot of work to recruit Amazon to come to Virginia. To be the number one state in the country in which to do business three years running, that's a major accomplishment. To get medicaid expansion done, to see that all Virginians have access to healthcare. a lot of work went into that. And I'm certainly very proud of that. The transportation projects across Virginia are just phenomenal right now. The emphasis that we placed on renewable energy. It's interesting that when I was in the Senate…a lot of the emphasis on energy was offshore drilling. What a disaster that would have been for this country and for Virginia. We've turned that ship 180 degrees. Lastly, I would say I'm proud of my staff. We've got the most diverse cabinet secretaries that Virginia's ever seen and they have done amazing work. The majority of them are women by the way that I think speaks well for our administration.
Jahd Khalil: What are your big regrets from the office or things that you feel are maybe unfinished?
Governor Ralph Northam: I don’t really have any regrets. I get up every morning and come in here very early. I'm proud of what I've done. Has it been perfect? I'm sure the historians will look back and say it probably wasn't perfect, but I think overall when I turn the keys over to Governor-elect Youngkin on January the 15th, Virginia's never been in this good of shape. And so that's something that I'm proud of.
Jahd Khalil: Do you think that being a governor is going to help you be a doctor? Like how, how do you think that might kind of play into thi-
Governor Ralph Northam: That’s a great question. I've always tried to treat all people the same. When they came into my office and when they were sick. But I think that what being governor has done is it really has opened my eyes up to a lot of the challenges that we have. And one of the things that I want to do when I leave… people ask what my legacy is but I think my legacy is to be determined. I think my greatest accomplishments are in the future. And those are making sure that all of our children have access to education and then also to deal with the disparities that continue to exist. If one looks at the statistics with maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality, we still have a lot of work to do. So what I've learned as a governor, I think will help me to better take care of patients when I leave here.
Jahd Khalil: Were you seeing patients when you were Lieutenant Governor, when was the last time you were seeing patients?
Governor Ralph Northam: Lieutenant governor is on paper, at least a part-time job. So I was seeing patients as Lieutenant Governor, but I often kind of kid with people, it's like, “How would you like to be my first patient after five years?” So, hopefully there'll be some takers.