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The pediatric neurologist says he’s a fiscal conservative, but not a social one.
Associated Press | File June
State Sen. Ralph Northam (center) stands with Democratic attorney general candidate Sen. Mark Herring (left) and gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in Richmond.
Sunday, September 15, 2013
As Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli wrestle with controversies in the gubernatorial race, state Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk, runs a laid-back, almost low-key campaign for lieutenant governor.
The pediatric neurologist from Norfolk secured the Democratic nomination in the party’s June primary, prevailing over former U.S. chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra.
Northam faces Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson, a former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate with a sharply different political profile, who has been battling scrutiny for his remarks on social issues.
Countering Jackson’s attempts to paint him as a big-government liberal, Northam brands himself as a fiscal conservative who is determined to sway moderates and independent voters.
“I don’t consider myself as a liberal. I consider myself as a moderate person. I think the less government, the better,” Northam said.
Many political experts already have called the election for Northam.
“Maybe everybody’s wrong, but analysts of all stripes have categorized this race as safe for Northam,” said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
The fact that Northam, 53, has said little about his Republican opponent — with the exception of subtle jabs every now and then such as last week’s criticism of Jackson’s call for a constitutional amendment supporting equal resources for home schoolers — is a sign of confidence, Sabato said.
“Here’s one candidate who doesn’t have to get negative to win. Though if for any reason Jackson starts to move up, I’m sure Northam has contingency plans to be more critical,” he said.
On the trail, Northam has made women’s rights one of his most important issues, aware that female voters could swing the election in his favor.
“I think the social agenda that rolled into Richmond two years ago — starting with the transvaginal ultrasound mandate, then the TRAP [Targeted Regulations Against Abortion Providers], the personhood bill, which would criminalize most forms of contraception, and the miscarriage bill — this is an attack on women’s reproductive care, and they are paying attention,” he said.
In 2009, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, introduced, then withdrew, the miscarriage bill. It would have required women to report miscarriages to authorities within 24 hours. Obenshain, now the Republican nominee for attorney general, says the measure was intended to aid prosecutions in cases such as one in which a Virginia woman threw her dead newborn into the trash. He said he withdrew the legislation when he realized it was too broad and would have had unintended consequences.
“The last thing Virginia needs to do is attack women and discriminate,” Northam said. “We don’t want to chase people away from the commonwealth; we want to make sure that they are coming to the commonwealth. What woman in her right mind would want to come to Virginia if contraception is criminalized? It’s a terrible business model,” Northam said.
Northam also believes it should be up to a woman to decide at what point she chooses to have an abortion.
“Those decisions, whether it is at 20 weeks or eight weeks, need to be made between the woman and her doctor,” he said.
“No woman gets up in the morning and says, ‘This is a good day to have an abortion.’ In health care, we counsel women and try to tell them about other options,” Northam said.
“The way to decrease abortion is not to pass ultrasound mandates or shut down women’s health care clinics,” Northam said, calling Republican attempts to restrict abortions in the commonwealth a “right-wing extremist agenda” designed to go “back to the pre-Roe v. Wade days.”
A focus on medical issues comes naturally for Northam, who launched his career as a U.S. Army physician in 1984, after obtaining his medical degree from Eastern Virginia Medical School.
Northam did eight years of active duty in the U.S. Army. He did his pediatric residency at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and a child neurology fellowship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
In the early 1990s, during Operation Desert Storm, he treated evacuated injured soldiers at a medical center in Germany — an experience that has stayed with him.
“I’ve had that call at 2 o’clock in the morning to pack my bags, say goodbye to my family, not knowing where I was going,” Northam said.
“We take a lot for granted as Americans and Virginians to have soldiers that are out there defending our freedom. And when they come home, and while they are gone, we need to make sure we are taking care of their families. We have a lot of work to do to take care of our veterans.”
In 1992, after his discharge, Northam founded a pediatric neurology practice at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk. Three years later, he joined 40 pediatricians to form the Children’s Specialty Group.
“We have grown since,” Northam said. “Today we employ 250 people; it’s a multimillion-dollar business.”
But his roots lie elsewhere.
Eastern Shore origins
Northam, born in Nassawadox, a town in Northampton County, grew up in Onancock, a small town on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, in what he calls a “very rural, very conservative” area, more than 70 miles from Norfolk, where he resides today.
His father served as a commonwealth’s attorney and circuit court judge, and his mother was a nurse. Northam said that how and where he was raised formed his political beliefs.
“I’m very conservative fiscally; that is part of my upbringing,” he said.
Northam was first elected to the state Senate in 2007, defeating Republican Nick Rerras, a two-term incumbent. He represents the 6th Senate District, which includes the Eastern Shore, Mathews County and parts of Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Northam was re-elected in 2011.
One year after he first assumed office, Northam created a controversy because of his decision to leave the Democratic state Senate caucus and join Republicans — a move that would have given the GOP operational control of the state Senate.
But Democrats persuaded him to stay.
Northam said that the reason for his planned departure was fiscal conservatism. But he later revised his views and pledged loyalty to Democrats because of the party’s positions on social issues.
“The reason I am a Democrat is because I believe I should be taking care of all realms of our society, especially those who are less fortunate than me,” he said in an interview.
But sometimes, Northam’s conservative upbringing re-emerges.
During this year’s primary, Chopra ran a series of attack ads against the senator because Northam had voted for a law, backed by the National Rifle Association, that would allow the use of deadly force against a trespasser in a person’s home, even when the intruder doesn’t pose a threat — a measure highly unpopular among most Democrats.
Sabato said that while Northam’s mixed ideological record posed a problem during the primary, it may be a plus for the general election.
“He’s stressing women’s rights because it fits with the ticket’s emphasis — but also because this will be a useful platform in four years’ time when Northam hopes to be running for governor,” Sabato said.
Northam insists that he doesn’t look that far ahead but he won’t rule out a future gubernatorial bid.
If he gets elected Virginia’s next lieutenant governor and Cuccinelli wins, Northam said he is willing to work across the aisle, in spite of the stark ideological differences.
“We’ll sit down at the table and talk about the best way of moving Virginia forward,” he said. “My reputation in Richmond is to work with both sides. I’m a Democrat and I believe in our values and principles, but I am very open-minded to other ideas. Things happen in the General Assembly through compromise.”
Jackson spokesman Chip Tarbutton said Northam has done little to restore liberty while in the Senate.
“If we continue to govern like Ralph Northam suggests, freedom and prosperity will continue to become our history rather than our future,” Tarbutton said.
Northam maintains a comfortable lead in campaign donations over his Republican opponent.
A Northam victory in November would also change the balance in Virginia’s evenly split state Senate in favor of Democrats — if they hold Northam’s state Senate seat in the resulting special election.
Northam isn’t worried about his district, which went overwhelmingly in 2012 for Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and President Barack Obama.
As the office of lieutenant governor is a part-time job, Northam would find some spare time to spend with his wife, Pam, whom he married 27 years ago, and their three adult children.
At home in Norfolk’s Ocean View section, Northam enjoys taking time off from politics by working on his two vintage cars.
“I have a 1953 Oldsmobile that looks like it just came off the showroom floor, and I have a 1971 Corvette,” he said. “It’s something I started doing in high school.”
One of his most rewarding experiences, Northam said, has been his volunteer work as medical director of Edmarc Hospice, a pediatric hospice in Hampton Roads, which currently caters to 60 terminally ill children.
Being around children with no hope for a long, fulfilled life often helps to put things in perspective for the politician.
“If I think I’m having a bad day, I don’t think there is anything worse than the loss of a child. So I don’t sweat the small things,” he said.
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