The Virginia gubernatorial race, which will take place this coming fall, will be one of the nation’s first big post–Donald Trump political contests. (New Jersey will also elect a governor this year.) Democrats in the state will pick their candidate in a primary this June.
Last month, I interviewed Tom Perriello, whose late entry into the race as a populist candidate threw Democrats in the commonwealth into something of a panic, terrified as they are of the consequences of losing the statehouse in the Trump era. The current lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, is the establishment favorite, having garnered endorsements from almost every Democrat holding state or federal office. The latest polling suggests that the two are about even and that Perriello supporters backed Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary while Northam supporters were largely backers of Hillary Clinton. That mirrors the press narrative about Perriello as the populist disruptor who is running to the left of Northam, a narrative both candidates have rejected as oversimplified. Both candidates have worked hard to keep their primary race civil, but for Virginia Democrats the contest couldn’t be more urgent: This is, in their view, a testing ground for beating back Trumpism, a natural experiment in lessons learned, even as nobody is yet certain what those lessons really are.
This week, I asked Northam what he learned from 2016 and how he plans to fight the Trump administration. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dahlia Lithwick: I wonder what you think of the media narrative about the Virginia gubernatorial race, i.e., that it somehow maps onto the Hillary Clinton–Bernie Sanders dynamic issues in the 2016 Democratic race. I ask in part because it seems to me like a narrative that creates a lot more heat than light. Is there any lesson to be drawn from the Clinton-Sanders race that can be useful in understanding the Northam-Perriello contest?
Ralph Northam: I’m not too bothered about what folks outside the commonwealth are saying about this race—I’m focused on making sure we listen to Virginians. I’m a doctor, so listening is part of who I am. And as I travel across the commonwealth, folks are mainly concerned about two things: standing up to what’s going on in Washington with Trump and Congress and ensuring there’s economic opportunity for every Virginian, no matter who they are, no matter where they are. What they’re looking for is a fighter, and I’ve been fighting for progressive values my entire career, whether that’s fighting for common-sense gun reform, standing up to defend a woman’s right to reproductive health care, or defending our LGBT community against hateful attacks. I think as people get to know the two of us and our résumés, the contrasts in our records will be crystal clear.
You and Perriello have both been pretty outspoken in your support of a $15 per hour minimum wage. Doesn’t that run counter to the narrative that Virginia is fundamentally a centrist state and that running to the center is the only way for Democrats to win the governor’s race?
I think raising the minimum wage goes beyond party ideology. Both Democrats and Republicans are hurt when families can’t live on a salary. One of our core Virginia values is fairness, and I think we can all agree there’s nothing fair about a $7.25 minimum wage. No one can raise a family on it—it’s just not a living wage. We need to get incomes rising again and that starts with giving working families in the commonwealth a raise. I was proud to cast a tie-breaking vote in the senate to raise Virginia’s minimum wage. As governor, I’ll work hard to ensure we’re building an economy with opportunity for all Virginians.
Perriello has been making Donald Trump a central issue in his campaign. You have avoided doing that. Can you talk about why that is and whether it matters in this race?
Donald Trump is a narcissistic maniac, and I will do all I can to keep his hate out of Virginia. When I saw how he treated Khizr and Ghazala Khan, a Gold Star family, and how he mocked a disabled reporter—as a veteran and a doctor, that’s all I needed to know. So I campaigned across Virginia against Donald Trump and his disrespectful, divisive rhetoric and policies.
Here in Virginia we need to be welcoming, our doors need to be open, our lights need to be on. Some people make a lot of noise, but I can tell you that the toughest guys lead through action. I might be a nice guy, but I know what it means to be tough and win big fights, and I’ve got a record that backs that talk up. I’ve been a fighter my whole life. When I’m governor, Donald Trump’s dangerous ideas, his bigotry and hatred, they aren’t going to see the light of day in Virginia.
You and I spoke a few years back, in 2012, when Virginia was embroiled in the transvaginal ultrasound meltdown. One of the lessons I perhaps incorrectly took from that story was that mass outrage and organization in Virginia turned it into a big national story that got the bill killed in the commonwealth. But somehow the national press had all moved on when the same legislation promptly passed in other states. How, especially in an era of daily outrages against women’s health, do we keep people focused on the boring drip-drip of the state laws that nobody seems to notice?
There’s no reason that a bunch of legislators, most of whom are men, should be telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies. We have to remain vigilant and encourage more legislators to use their voices to proclaim that loud and proud. Perhaps we need more doctors in elected office who understand how offensive these mandates are and can be outspoken about defeating these bills. I’ve never wavered on protecting a woman’s right to reproductive health care, and I never will. Other folks in this race can’t say the same. That’s why I’ve had the honor of receiving the joint endorsement of both NARAL Pro-Choice America and NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. I’m also proud to be a part of Terry McAuliffe’s administration, who’s used the governor’s pen to veto what I call “trash” bills that are nothing more than efforts to shame women for their personal health decisions. With Donald Trump in the White House, I can only imagine the kind of unprecedented trash that will cross the governor’s desk.
You came pretty late to the politics game, and some Democrats are troubled by what they see as centrism, or at least nonfealty to the Democratic Party, even including some support for Republicans. Can you talk about your approach to politics?
Since I first ran for public office, I have won in a conservative district running on and fighting for progressive values. I’ve been consistent about what I stand for, and stand against, while serving the people of Virginia. When I got to Richmond, the first thing I did was take on the powerful tobacco industry to get smoking out of restaurants. The smoking ban got defeated the first time I authored it in 2008, but I didn’t let that stop me. I came right back and introduced it again in 2009. I had to reach across the aisle to get it done and then Gov. Tim Kaine signed it into law. Today, cancer deaths are down in Virginia and below the national average. Finding ways to work together while staying true to your values is possible, I truly believe that.
I wanted to give you a chance to talk about guns, which are very fraught here in Virginia in ways Democrats around the country might find surprising.
Nine years and 11 months ago, our commonwealth and our country were changed forever when 32 members of the Virginia Tech community were shot and killed and 17 were wounded. In my first weeks as a state senator, I met survivors of the Virginia Tech tragedy, and I have partnered with them in advocating for common-sense gun safety reform ever since. As an Army veteran who took care of wounded soldiers during Desert Storm, I know exactly what assault weapons can do to the human body. In my medical practice, I have treated children who are the victims of gun violence, so I know this isn’t a political game. I’ve ran and won pushing for common-sense gun reforms, including an assault weapons ban, universal background checks, smart gun technology, and restoring Virginia’s “one gun a month” policy.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the Affordable Care Act replacement, particularly given your background as a physician.
In addition to being a doctor, I helped write the language to create our state’s exchange under the Affordable Care Act and the language for us to undertake Medicaid expansion in the commonwealth. So, I’m in a unique position to understand what the Republicans’ proposal means for Virginia. It’s a little sad that they’ve had seven years to put together a replacement plan that is what I call a trifecta of inadequacy: It covers fewer people, it raises costs for patients, and it massively cuts taxes for the wealthy and insurance companies. But there’s no free lunch. They’ll pay for these cuts by kicking seniors and low-income folks off of Medicaid. Medicaid as we know it will be over. Because we failed to expand Medicaid here in the commonwealth, that means that we’ll be at a permanent disadvantage to states that did close their coverage gaps with those dollars, and we’ll be forced to make some tough choices about our own budget.
There’s a lot to digest in this bad bill, but there are two things we shouldn’t let go by unnoticed. One is that they’ve tucked in a despicable attempt to cut women’s access to reproductive health care by barring Planned Parenthood from receiving federal Medicaid reimbursements, which would effectively defund it. Many women go to Planned Parenthood because it’s a low-cost provider of quality, affordable health care. That’s unacceptable. The second thing their plan includes is a measure that could effectively end private abortion coverage in the United States. It bars women and potentially employers from using tax credits to purchase health insurance plans that include abortion coverage. This is the Stupak amendment, part 2. Rolling back the clock on Roe v. Wade will have real-life, adverse effects on women’s health outcomes across the board. That’s dangerous.
After seven years, this was the best the GOP could do, and frankly, that’s sad. We must defend the Affordable Care Act. I’ll be the first to admit there’s room for improvement, but the better way to cover more Virginians for less money is to build on its progress. Ensuring quality health care remains in reach for hundreds of thousands of Virginians is an economic and moral imperative. In America, people shouldn’t be one illness away from a financial catastrophe for themselves and their families.