Over the summer, as Virginia prepared to elect its governor, I was fortunate to see Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam at a debate with primary opponent Tom Perriello and at a rally in my home city of Alexandria.
Both times, I was overwhelmingly impressed by his progressive record, substantive and principled policy knowledge and his get-it-done pragmatism. His aw-shucks, country-doctor effect notwithstanding, it was clear to me why after six years as a state senator and four years as lieutenant governor, Northam is admired across the aisle in Richmond.
These days, many Virginians feel anger and apprehension about the tumult on the other bank of the Potomac River, but we cannot forget about the crucial hiring decision we have to make at home. This election cycle, Democrats in the Old Dominion are lucky: We can choose Northam, an impeccably qualified candidate ardently committed to the progressive policies we value.
Unlike his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie, who is a former K Street lobbyist and GOP strategist, the last thing one can accuse Northam of is being a “Washington insider.” He was raised on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and retains a mild-mannered Southern charm, sustaining his resonance with voters outside urbanized Northern Virginia. As an Army doctor, he served during Operation Desert Storm and later spent most of his career practicing pediatric neurology. While Gillespie might be the more high-octane politician, Northam has a commitment to his principles based on his firsthand experience as a doctor that runs far deeper than politics. At both the rally and the Perriello debate, he emotionally testified to the profound damage that automatic and semiautomatic weapons can inflict upon human bodies, which he has witnessed over and over. He also emphasized that such weapons have no place in Virginia public life. In a state in which 32 people were killed at Virginia Tech and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) was shot at a baseball field in Alexandria, the Republican-controlled General Assembly nevertheless remains dedicated to easing access to firearms. A governor committed to common-sense gun control is crucial for keeping the commonwealth safe.
Other highlights of Northam’s impressive record include his tie-breaking votes against the transvaginal ultrasound mandate, which would have required women seeking an abortion to undergo an invasive and non-essential procedure, and to raise the minimum wage in Virginia. He’s been instrumental in building an economy that works for every Virginian; under his and current Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s tenure, 215,000 jobs have been added to the commonwealth’s economy and the unemployment rate has fallen to 3.7 percent. Also, because he is so well-versed in the ways of Richmond, Northam has strengths when it comes to reaching across the aisle. As the Virginia Constitution limits the governor to one consecutive term, Northam has one shot to enact his agenda and his ability to compromise will be critical.
In contrast, while the problems I have with Gillespie’s policy platform are endemic to the Republican party as a whole, his cynical, divisive campaign calculus make it clear that he is not the candidate who can move the commonwealth forward. His controversial ad blitz accusing Northam of refusing to crack down on sanctuary cities and connecting him to Latino gang violence was exuberantly fact-free and reminiscent of the xenophobic fervor that President Donald Trump has exacerbated. There are no sanctuary cities in Virginia; Gillespie has twisted truth to support his purpose and accommodated the nativism of the Republican base. While Mark Twain may have suggested that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” Gillespie’s campaign is proving exactly what kind of governor we can expect him to be.
As a whole, Virginia is becoming more ethnically diverse and culturally open; it is, you might say, beginning to look more like America. Like the electorate as a whole, the Old Dominion has supported the Democratic presidential candidate in the last three elections. Virginia is purple trending blue — Republicans haven’t won a statewide race in eight years and our senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, are both Democrats. One hundred and seventeen thousand more Democrats than Republicans voted in the primary this summer. However, thanks to a gerrymandered electoral map that heavily favors Republicans, the General Assembly is overwhelmingly composed of the hard-right. Thus, a Democratic governor is the firewall between the extreme conservative social agenda of the General Assembly and the Virginian body politic. McAuliffe has largely spent his four years in Richmond preventing many of the damaging bills passed by the legislature from making it past his desk. He has vetoed bills that cut support for Planned Parenthood, impose stricter requirements to voter registration, give tax credits to coal corporations, and expand access to firearms, in addition to about 90 others. If Gillespie is elected governor, he and the General Assembly would be able to take the commonwealth in a direction that based on demography, a plurality of us do not support. Considering the fact that only the House of Delegates, which is even more Republican than the state Senate, is up for re-election this cycle, Democratic inroads will not be able to ensure against deleterious legislative outcomes. Northam’s election as governor — and his future vetoes — will be crucial to stay the course that McAuliffe has taken the past four years.
Ultimately, Democrats can win this election if the Democratic base, particularly in voter-dense and deep-blue Northern Virginia, shows up to the polls. As the executive branch at the federal level flounders, states will have to take the lead, so off-year elections are now more important than ever.
As President Barack Obama said in his speech at a recent Northam rally, “I think it’s great that you hashtag and meme, but I need you to vote.” The vast consequences that could result from who is elected Virginia’s next governor are an obvious reminder of how much every office on every ballot matters.