When sailors came ashore with their newly gotten pay in the 1920s, Thomas Long Northam would head to Norfolk to relieve them of it.
In addition to his job as a judge on the Eastern Shore, Northam was a skilled card player, but his knack for winning didn’t always sit well with the men across the table. According to family lore, one player became so enraged he pulled out a pistol and shot Northam in the ear.
“Boy, put that gun away before someone gets hurt,” an unfazed Northam replied.
Some 90 years later, Northam’s grandson, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, has taken his similarly low-key demeanor and understated sturdiness to within striking distance of becoming Virginia’s 73rd governor. First, he has to make sure his plans aren’t cut short by an electorate that, as President Donald Trump’s victory showed, can be extremely difficult to read.
A 58-year-old pediatric neurologist and former state senator from Norfolk, Northam is widely considered the favorite to win Virginia’s Nov. 7 gubernatorial election. Favorable demographic trends have helped Democrats win every statewide race since 2009, and Virginia was the only Southern state Trump didn’t win in 2016.
Still, with polls showing Republican Ed Gillespie hanging around in what could be a low-turnout election, Democrats are paying close attention to a race that’s more competitive than they would like.
“We’re not nervous. We’re certainly not overconfident,” Northam said in an interview at a Richmond coffee shop after a 2-mile run through the Fan District to clear his head for a full day of late-October campaigning.
With a résumé that reads like a political strategist’s dream — rural Virginia roots, military service, a medical background and statehouse experience — Northam has leaned heavily on his bio, contrasting it with Gillespie’s career as a Washington consultant and lobbyist.
Rallying behind a candidate used to comforting ailing children and their families, Democrats have pitched Northam’s soft touch as a cure for the political venom of 2016. But in a race that looks more like a continuation of America’s vicious culture wars than a return to the genteel Virginia Way, some Northam backers can’t help but wonder: Is good-heartedness enough?
“My position is he’s too nice a guy to be a politician. But he’s getting there,” said Luther Santiful, chairman of the Shenandoah County Democratic Committee. “We’ll be in good shape if he becomes governor.”
If Northam wins, it won’t be his first display of political resilience.
When he sought the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 2013, Northam beat Aneesh Chopra, a technology official in the Obama White House, with big margins in his own backyard in Hampton Roads and a strong showing in Northern Virginia, Chopra’s home turf. Running as a fiscal moderate in the general election, Northam easily beat Republican firebrand E.W. Jackson.
When it appeared former congressman Tom Perriello — a more energetically progressive candidate who portrayed Northam as the boring heir apparent of the party establishment — was close to overtaking Northam in June to snatch the Democratic nomination for governor, Northam won the primary by a surprisingly lopsided margin of nearly 12 points.
As he runs to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Northam’s campaign pitch sounds a lot like an extension of the McAuliffe era. He’s promised to resist Trump when necessary, promote economic development, press for Medicaid expansion and boost education funding.
Northam has promised to continue to be a check on the Republican-controlled General Assembly by blocking any legislation that restricts women’s rights or takes aim at racial minorities or the LGBT community. As a native-born Virginian whose own family history intertwines with the Civil War and slavery, Northam has said he opposes Confederate statues and thinks they should be moved to museums. Gillespie, who grew up in New Jersey, says monuments should stay up.
His main new initiative would be a workforce development proposal that would offer cost-free community college or training credentials in high-demand industries for students who commit their new skills to a year of service at a government agency or nonprofit or putting them to use in an economically depressed region.
With polls showing Trump deeply unpopular in Virginia, Northam, who has tied Gillespie to Trump at every turn, might not need a highly detailed policy agenda.
When asked why she’s backing Northam, Fien Garnes, a 74-year-old Democrat from Winchester, began ticking off all the things she doesn’t like about the president, from his public feuds with seemingly everyone who criticizes him, to the prospect of a “third world war” with North Korea.
“Ed Gillespie’s out,” Garnes said. “Because of Trump.”
Joining Northam on a recent Sunday morning tour of African-American churches in Roanoke, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., broke out into the civil rights song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” while describing the disappointment of being on the losing ticket last year and introducing Northam as a “healer.”
“Kind is not weak. Kind can be very strong,” Kaine said.
As governor, Kaine helped recruit Northam to run in 2007 for a state Senate seat that includes the Eastern Shore and parts of Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
When Kaine needed a lawmaker to champion his 2009 proposal to ban smoking in restaurants — at the risk of angering a tobacco industry that was once the lifeblood of Virginia’s economy — he picked Northam.
“Normally, you’d go to a senior senator. You’d go to a committee chair or something like that,” Kaine said. “But I went to Ralph.”
“I wouldn’t have gotten where I am if I hadn’t had a little bit of a backbone,” Northam said. “I know how to get where I need to go.”
‘Start off as a Rat’
Born into an old-line Eastern Shore family, Northam grew up on a farm in Onancock, about a mile from the Chesapeake Bay. His father, Wescott B. Northam, was a lawyer who became an elected prosecutor and a judge. His mother, Nancy, was a nurse.
He sold eggs to neighbors from the dozen Rhode Island Red chickens he kept, got into restoring old cars and played basketball and baseball at his then-newly desegregated public high school. From Onancock, he headed to the Virginia Military Institute, the history-steeped military college in Lexington.
“You start off as a Rat. And you come in and they shave your hair and they put you in a pair of fatigues,” said Northam, using the traditional term for first-year cadets. “The goal at VMI is no matter where you came from, no matter who you are, to put everybody down at the same level. And then you have to build your class up and grow together.”
In his senior year, his colleagues chose him to be the president of the Honor Court, the student panel responsible for doling out punishment to cadets suspected of lying, cheating or stealing. Even though some of the accused would come in armed with lawyers and he occasionally had to deal with cases involving friends, Northam said the line between right and wrong was “always clear-cut.”
“When people are dishonest, they’re not just dishonest once,” Northam said. “It’s a pattern.”
After VMI, Northam got his medical degree from Eastern Virginia Medical School and began his eight years of active duty as a U.S. Army doctor. His military service led him to a medical center in Germany in the early 1990s, where he treated wounded soldiers arriving from Operation Desert Storm, an experience he cites on the campaign trail when calling for tighter gun laws.
He met his wife, Pam, with whom he has two adult children, during his residency at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where she worked as a pediatric occupational therapist.
After his discharge in 1992, Northam founded a pediatric neurology practice at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk. A few years later, he threw in with a cohort of other pediatricians to form Children’s Specialty Group. For nearly two decades, Northam has volunteered as medical director for a hospice that serves dying children.
Before getting into politics, Northam made headlines in Richmond just once when he found himself in the middle of a watery drama on the Chesapeake Bay. In the summer of 1993, two men who had set out on a canoe trip from the Northern Neck to Tangier Island were dumped into the water by a violent storm. Blown far off course and on the verge of losing strength after hours in the water, the canoeists were saved when Northam pulled up in a 37-foot fishing boat and plucked them from the bay.
Northam said he only spotted the overturned canoe because he was up on the boat’s tower looking out for crab pots.
When Northam was recruited to run for the state Senate, his coastal origins led party operatives to give him the nickname “Blue Crab.”
As a Democrat who voted twice for Republican George W. Bush, a decision he now says he regrets, Northam wasn’t exactly a partisan ideologue when he arrived in the state Senate. His reputation as a centrist invited Republicans to try to coax him to switch sides in 2009. It didn’t happen. And when Perriello emerged to challenge Northam for the gubernatorial nomination this year, the Democratic Party brass backed Northam unanimously.
Whatever campaign Northam intended to run, the race has been defined largely by Gillespie’s attack ads. Gillespie’s ominous TV spots have accused Northam of being soft on Latino street gang MS-13 because he voted against a ban on sanctuary cities, which do not exist in Virginia. Other Gillespie ads have painted Northam as lenient on sex offenders because of McAuliffe’s push to restore voting rights for all felons who have finished their sentences.
“I’ve always been very strong with Ralph that you need to answer any false attacks,” McAuliffe said in an interview. “Gillespie is running the most racist, bigoted, hateful campaign I’ve ever seen.”
Northam has fought back with a harsh mailer of his own linking Gillespie to the white supremacists who staged a violent rally this summer in Charlottesville. That theme was taken a step further by the Latino Victory Fund, an outside group that published a controversial video ad showing a white man in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker chasing down minority children.
The LVF ad sparked a sustained backlash from Republicans who criticized Northam for being reluctant to denounce it.
“I used to have a lot more respect for Ralph Northam than I do right now,” said state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Rockingham. “He’s not the same person that was originally elected to the Senate.”
Northam said he won’t look to govern in a “confrontational mode.”
“I’m going to try to bring people together,” he said. “And I think we need that.”
He may not lead with a bullhorn, but in the eyes of Northam’s supporters, strength isn’t always measured in decibels.
“He was not a senator who popped up and commented on everything,” said state Sen. Barbara A. Favola, D-Arlington. “But when he did stand up, everybody listened.”
“If you already deal with people suffering, then you understand,” said Robert Watkins, a 53-year-old electrician who heard Northam speak in Roanoke. “And that’s what we need in our government right now.”