Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam on transgender rights, medical marijuana, Trump and his 2017 gubernatorial run
Pictures of crabs, fishing trips, and VMI glory days dot the first floor, corner office of the Oliver Hall building to the east of the Virginia Capitol building.
The desk inside this office is a bit messy, with notes and papers strewn about, but it all appears to have a purpose.
Behind that desk sits Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, an Eastern Shore native and life-long Virginian, who wants you to vote for him in the 2017 gubernatorial election.
“I used to fish, but now all I do is talk about it,” he joked as we sat down for an interview.
Born in Nassawadox, Virginia, Northam grew up on the Eastern shore as the product of a nurse (his mom) and a Commonwealth’s Attorney/Judge (his father.) He attended VMI where he was President of the Honor Court. After that he graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School and joined the Army. While in the service he finished his pediatric residency followed by a child neurology fellowship.
He served in Desert Storm before ending his military career as a Major where he then returned to Virginia to establish a pediatric neurology practice at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters.
In 2007, after frustration stemming from dealing with insurance companies, Northam decided to run for Senate. Sure enough, he took the seat from a republican incumbent and managed to hold on to it until 2013 when he decided to run for Lt. Governor where he beat out the vocally anti-gay Hampton Rds. preacher E. W. Jackson.
While the Lt. Governor seat is mainly ceremonial, Northam has had the chance to exercise his powers as tie-breaker for the Senate at least once this session where he cast a vote to strike a bill which would have allowed people to conceal carry a gun without a permit.
He also cast a tie-breaking vote in 2015 which allowed protections for LGBTQ state employees to move on to the House (where it was promptly killed in subcommittee).
It’s this interest in LGBTQ issues which brought me to his office today, and he’s not one to shy away from the topic as far back as the 2013 election.
The first time I met the now-gubernatorial candidate was at the Hippodrome theatre when the Democratic Party announced their ticket for the upcoming election which they would all sweep.
It was there, and in interviews along the campaign trail, that Northam would be the most vocal advocate of LGBTQ equality. Questions sent to Herring and McAuliffe would go unanswered, or be sent straight to Northam. While this bothered me at the time, it paid off in the end (obviously), but I was curious why and where Northam’s support for LGBTQ issues came from.
“If you sit down, and have a little bit of an understanding of science, and talk with people who are in the LGBT community, you realize that they’re just like the rest of us,” he said about his own medical background influencing his opinions, as well as time spent with friends and neighbors who he said identify as LGBTQ. “They were put on this earth by whoever our creator is – God, we’ll say – and everyone should be treated equal.”
Raised an Episcopalian, Northam said he was proud to see the faith he was raised in move forward on equality issues like Virginia has.
“It’s something I’ve always felt strongly about,” he said.
With his folksy, Eastern Shore accent, it’s easy to imagine Northam preaching the opposite, but before I can even get another question in he started making comparisons between same-sex relationships and the relationship he has with his wife.
“I had to go all the way to Texas to find a woman who could have me,” he said. “Imagine someone coming to me and saying ‘Ralph, you can’t love that woman, you can’t marry her, you can’t have children with her.’ That’s what some people are trying to tell the LGBT community.”
I’m notably moved but trying not to show it. I’ve interviewed politicians before, but Northam’s willingness to make these comparisons, along with his genuine tone, offer a rare chance to believe someone whose job it is to make and break promises.
And this isn’t the only time he was so forward with LGBTQ issues in our interview. Unprompted, he again compared the love of his wife to the treatment experienced by those forced into conversion, or ex-gay therapy.
“What would happen if someone came to me and said, ‘You say you like this woman, but we don’t think that’s in your best interest. So we’re gonna put you in some therapy and convince you to love men.’ It’s the same thing,” he said. “And people who tolerate that [treatment] don’t understand science or human nature and I think they’re very cruel to want to tell someone else who they love or who they should have feelings for.”
This openness to LGBTQ issues is something he’s put into practice outside of the occasional conversation with GayRVA – sure enough he’s been in contact with Joel McDonald, an openly gay member of Virginia Beach’s School Board, in more than one instance.
“He’s interesting because you would assume, from where he’s from and how he talks, that he’d be more conservative on social issues,” said McDonald who said he’s not only run into the Lt. Gov. at LGBTQ events in and around Norfolk, he received a donation from him during his campaign for school board.
“I was surprised at just how much of a vocal advocate for equality he was when he ran for Lt. Gov,” he said about other interactions he’s had with Northam. “And it wasn’t just words. He means what he says. All the time.”
I pressed Northam on some of the more complicated issues facing Virginia’s LGBTQ community, mainly about the attacks against transgender bathroom use and the lawsuit filed against the Chesterfield County School Board over their policy forcing transgender students to use restrooms aligned with their birth gender.
“I heard there would be someone who would pull your pants down,” he joked about the bill which failed to get out of a House committee a few weeks back. “In 2016 that’s what you all want to talk about?”
He said he and his wife have several transgender friends, a line I might not accept from other politicians but, again, his genuine tone is incredibly reassuring. “They should be treated equally just like everyone else,” he said about transgender Virginians. “I think that, and I’m hopeful that, the younger generation tends to be more open minded and accepting,” he said about issues like transgender folks using restrooms, and LGBTQ rights in general. He said he’s spoken to his daughter, Aubrey, about these topics and “she doesn’t have a problem with it and I think in five or ten years people will be like ‘what were you all even thinking about?’ We’re moving on from that.”
Speaking of moving on, I decided to switch topics from LGBTQ issues because it’s not often I get the chance to grill a hopeful Governor.
At last year’s General Assembly session Northam had another stand out moment when he advocated in favor of a form of medical marijuana for children suffering from epilepsy, an issue he’s all too familiar with in his role as a pediatric neurologist. To be clear, he was backing cannabidiol, an extract from marijuana that lacks any psychoactive ingredients, but has shown to be helpful in treating forms of epilepsy.
“Over 100 of the medicines we prescribe every day [come] from plants. Marijuana is a plant, and it’s got that stigma associated with it,” he said when asked how he would handle the issue of medical marijuana if he became governor. “I think we need to move forward with good evidence-based research. If it’s safe and effective then we should be open minded.”
With the national primaries in full swing, Northam, who endorsed Hilary Clinton because of her experience and knowledge of foreign affairs, didn’t mince words about the GOP front runner Donald Trump.
“I haven’t heard anything of substance to come out of Trump’s mouth which is frightening for me as a policy maker,” he said after calling all three leading GOP candidates unqualified for office. “People that are in this business should be wanting to find solutions for the challenges we have… I just haven’t heard it out there and I don’t think there’s any ‘there’ to be heard.”
It was refreshing to hear the gubernatorial candidate speak so resoundingly against something. Northam’s calm demeanor, while theoretically an asset for a political, seems a bit old school for today’s modern rough and tumble political arena. But he reassured me he was ready for a fight – between his military history, his vocal support for women’s health rights, and his Eastern Shore roots, he said he “doesn’t mind mixing it up” if someone asks him to vote against his principals.
“The goal here is to do what’s best for the people of Virginia,” he said.
It’s been a little over a year since Northam first declared his intentions to run for office, and he’ll get at least one more General Assembly session to further bolster his political chops. No other democrats have stepped forward to challenge him yet and that might be a good thing for LGBTQ Virginians – Northam seems to be a true ally on LGBTQ and other progressive issues, and we’ll be sure to keep in touch with the candidate and current Lt. Governor as election season ramps up in 2017.
This year’s GA featured heated testimony from people on both sides of the issue.June 1, 2016
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