The most telling moment from the most recent General Assembly session was one that didn’t happen. At the end of every session, a delegation of legislators pays a ceremonial visit to the governor’s office. This year, Gov. Ralph Northam went to his office to await their arrival — but the legislators never came. The General Assembly adjourned without appointing the traditional delegation.
This has nothing to do with partisan rancor, of which there was only the customary amount. Instead, it had everything to do with legislators from both parties wanting to keep their distance from Northam following his “blackface” scandal. When a legislature as tradition-bound as ours departs from a harmless custom to avoid a ceremonial appearance before the governor, well, that truly shows the depths into which Northam has fallen.
Polls — of which the Roanoke College Poll is the most recent — consistently show that Virginians want Northam to stay on. Ordinary voters may be more forgiving, but the state’s political establishment remains wary. Politically, this is a problem for Northam. He’s got nearly three years left in his term. What kind of governor can he be if nobody wants to deal with him?
Institutionally, Northam retains the vast powers of the Virginia governorship. He can sign or veto bills, he can make appointments; and he can issue executive orders to shape state policy. What he lacks at the moment is the moral authority to use the governorship as a bully pulpit to do all the other things a governor typically does — to persuade people, to make things happen beyond gubernatorial fiat. Can Northam ever regain enough standing that people want to be seen with him again? It will be hard, and for some people the answer will still be “no.” Still, it would be good if Virginians had a governor who could function at 100 percent and not some lower percentage. So let’s look at what Northam could do to rebuild his political capital.
His forthcoming “apology tour” is a good start but that only goes so far. Northam can apologize all day but deeds speak louder than words. So what good deeds could Northam could perform that might help him?
n Union Hill. Undoubtedly, the most obvious one would be to intervene somehow to prevent Dominion Energy from putting a natural gas compressor station in Union Hill, an African-American community in Buckingham County that sits along the intended path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The case of Union Hill has become a cause célèbre in some quarters on the left; former Vice President Al Gore recently visited the community to call attention to its plight. For Northam to intervene would be, as the popular phrase goes, “a heavy lift.” It would mean doing one thing he’s said he doesn’t want to do (intervene with state regulatory decisions) and another he clearly doesn’t want to do (go against the state’s largest utility). Of course, that’s exactly why a Northam intervention on Union Hill would be so electrifying. Politicians don’t get credit for doing the easy thing; they get credit for doing the hard things, and this would surely be hard. It also would be largely symbolic. The actual number of people affected is quite small — said to be 199. Still, the symbolism would count for a lot.
n Old schools. A more substantive — but less symbolic — move would be to figure out a way to address the deteriorating physical condition of the state’s oldest schools. This isn’t necessarily a matter of racial equity, although there’s a case to be made that it helps. Of the state’s 52 oldest schools — built in 1925 or prior — more than half have a student body that is either predominantly African-American majority or at least a disproportionate number of African-Americans relative to the locality’s overall population.
As we’ve remarked before, it’s curious that Democrats haven’t championed the problem of aging schools — especially because most of them are in communities that typically vote Democratic. Instead, it’s been a white Republican — state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County — who has been most vocal in calling attention to the problem. Unlike Union Hill, this shouldn’t be a hard issue for Northam to take on — which makes it all the more mystifying that he hasn’t so far. In his inaugural address, Northam himself bemoaned “crumbling schools.” Here’s an opportunity for him to live up to his own words, and frame his solution as part of his racial equity campaign (but one that would also help a lot of overwhelmingly white communities in Southwest Virginia).
Stanley offered a big solution: A $3 billion state bond issue. The proposal met with a quick (and bipartisan) legislative death. Northam could revive that. Democrats would be unhappy that he’s validating a Republican’s proposal, but that’s their fault for not supporting it in the first place. This could be a legacy-defining proposal the way it was for the last Virginia governor to come up with money for a statewide school construction plan — John Battle in the 1950s. The critical difference is that Battle wasn’t building new schools for black students.
A Virginia governor has the power to not just sign and veto bills but also to send some back with amendments, as long as they’re germane to the original bill. Is there some education bill now sitting on the governor’s desk to which the bond issue could be appended? Here’s an opportunity waiting to happen.
n Interstate 81. That brings us to a final suggestion. This doesn’t have anything to do with racial equity, but does offer a way for Northam to make himself politically relevant again — and also get something done in the process. We just mentioned that he could find some education bill to amend. He could do the same on the bill calling for yet another study of Interstate 81.
When the session began, he endorsed a proposal by some Republican legislators to put tolls on I-81 as a way to pay for upgrades. That measure ran into the ditch. Everybody agrees I-81 needs to be “fixed” but no one agrees on how to do it. Perhaps Northam could flex the institutional muscles he still has and try to force a decision — by making the legislature vote on the tolls plan. Mind you, the tolls plan may not be the best way to pay for I-81. Skittish legislators might vote down the plan for lots of reasons, good and bad. That’s a policy debate. From a purely political perspective, though, if Northam sent down an I-81 amendment, he’d be sending a powerful message that there’s still a governor in the State Capitol who has to be reckoned with.