RICHMOND, Va. – As Gov. Ralph Northam’s role as leader of the Commonwealth of Virginia ends on Saturday, 10 News sat down with him for a one-on-one conversation about his time in office.
“This has been the privilege of my life to be a public servant,” said Northam.
He served for six years in the Senate of Virginia and four years as Lieutenant Governor before being elected Virginia’s 73rd governor in 2017. He said as a child growing up along Virginia’s Eastern Shore, he never imagined he would one day be elected governor.
“I worked on the water. I worked on a farm and that was the farthest from any of my dreams or ambitions was to even go into politics,” explained Northam.
He likely never imagined what lay ahead once he took the oath of office during his inauguration on January 13, 2018.
“I’ve learned a lot. I’m a better person and I certainly hope Virginia is a better Commonwealth as a result of a lot of the work we’ve been able to do,” said Northam.
Northam was one year into office when he faced a crisis that had many calling for his resignation: a picture on his medical school yearbook page from 1984 showing one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam initially apologized for being in the picture, but the next day said he was not in it. An independent investigation into who was pictured was inconclusive.
When asked why he didn’t resign:
“That was a very difficult time for Virginia and I’m just glad that Virginians stuck with me,” said Northam. “I learned a lot and I always tell people, the more we know, the more we can do, and what we learned we really were able to turn into action.”
That action included work to address racial inequities in Virginia, in part through criminal justice reform.
Northam signed bills ending the death penalty in Virginia and legalizing recreational marijuana. His administration also worked to address racial disparities in healthcare and he appointed Virginia’s first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.
“I certainly knew from my past history that there were a lot of inequities that existed in this time frame and we had worked on some of those but the yearbook incident really put that into more focus,” he said.
Watch Brittny’s full interview with Gov. Northam below:
Another crisis was on the horizon at the end of 2019: the coronavirus pandemic.
“Maybe someone was looking down on us and said maybe this is a good time for a doctor to be governor, but it’s been a difficult two years,” Northam said.
Early in the pandemic, the Commonwealth struggled to get personal protective equipment, testing supplies were hard to come by, and then in late 2020, the initial demand for COVID-19 vaccines far outpaced supply.
Two years after the start of the pandemic, nearly 70% of Virginians are fully vaccinated against the virus, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
“For the most part, Virginians have followed the guidelines, and again, we still have some work to do,” Northam said. “I’d like to see more people roll up their sleeve and get a vaccine and make sure they get the booster, but we’re in a lot better place than we were two years ago.”
When asked if there was anything he wished he had done differently when it came to the pandemic, Northam said, “The toughest decision I think along the way was when we closed schools.”
Northam closed Virginia schools in March 2020 to work to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“Would I have done it again? I would have because there were so many unknowns, but it’s been hard on families,” he said.
As his time in office comes to a close, Northam, a pediatric neurologist, said he is ready to return to his private practice in Norfolk.
“Inauguration is on the 15th. I’m going to take the 16th off and then I’ve already got patients scheduled for the 17th, so I’m looking forward to that,” said Northam.
He feels Virginia is in a better place after everything that has happened in the past four years.
“We’re very progressive,” he said. “We embrace diversity. We take care of our workers and at the same time we have a very strong economy. That’s what people will look back and I think remember this administration for.”