In one-on-one interview, Northam reflects on a pivotal year and future priorities

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Monday, Governor Ralph Northam sat down with 8News Capitol Bureau Reporter Jackie DeFusco to reflect on the challenges of 2020. Northam also detailed his expectations and priorities going into the new year.

New coronavirus restrictions are a possibility after Christmas

Gov. Northam has often described the start of COVID-19 vaccinations as ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ but that doesn’t mean new coronavirus restrictions are off the table in 2021.

According to data analysts advising Northam’s Administration, a new projected peak tied to a post-Thanksgiving surge could lead to case counts thirteen times higher than those the state saw during the summer by early February. One University of Virginia model presented to the Virginia Department of Health last week suggested that hospitals in every region could be at risk of exceeding initial bed capacity for COVID-19 patients by the end of January.

On Monday, Northam emphasized the importance of individual responsibility and repeated that all options are on the table if the data doesn’t improve after Christmas. Though he didn’t specify the specific mitigation strategies that are being considered, 8News asked if school closures and stricter customer caps on businesses are possible in the near future.

“I certainly hope not,” Northam said. “I’ll take whatever measures we need to take to keep Virginians safe.”

Northam added that additional Congressional relief for businesses and the unemployed will give him more options moving forward.

“For example. every time I make a decision to restrict a restaurant more, that’s a business, those are people’s jobs,” Northam said. “So support from the federal level will give us a lot more flexibility.”

Virginia’s unemployment system needs an upgrade

According to Northam, more than 1.3 million Virginians have filed for unemployment throughout the pandemic and over $10 billion in benefits have been distributed.

Yet some have complained that the Virginia Employment Commission has been slow to adjudicate issues with claims. Meanwhile, many have said it’s impossible to get anyone on the phone to resolve an issue or to get a simple status update.

“While it hasn’t been a perfect system, we have learned a lot. It was an antiquated system,” Northam said.

Despite initial investments to deal with the flood of claimants, Northam said the VEC needs a face lift. He said his latest budget proposal commits $15 million to update the system.

Asked about the timeline of those improvements, Northam said the General Assembly first has to act on his budget plan during the regular session that begins in January.

A reckoning with racial justice continues

In 2020, Northam pushed racial equity to the forefront amid nationwide protests that erupted in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

Earlier this year, Northam directed the removal of Richmond’s towering statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, though the process has been stalled by ongoing court challenges. Moving forward, his budget proposal directs nearly $11 million towards a broader re-imagining of Monument Avenue, which was formerly a hub for Confederate iconography.

Northam also signed multiple police reforms into law following a lengthy special session, including bans on no-knock warrants and chokeholds.

It has been almost two years since Northam initially apologized for appearing in a racist yearbook photo only to later claim that he wasn’t in it after all. In May 2019, an inquiry commissioned by Eastern Virginia Medical School ended without determining the identity of the men depicted in black face and Klu Klux Klan dress.

8News asked Northam if he feels the steps taken in 2020 have helped him regain trust among communities of color who called for his resignation in the wake of the 2019 scandal.

“That was a difficult time for Virginia. It hurt a lot of people and I told Virginians, let’s work together,” Northam said. “After my experience, I listened to a lot of individuals. I learned a lot and, as I’ve always said, the more I know, the more I can do but I think the tragedy in Minneapolis was really the tipping point.”

In Monday’s interview, Northam declined to take a stance on the issue of ending qualified immunity for police officers. The proposal failed during this year’s special session and could resurface in 2021.

“The devil is in the details,” Northam said. “I’ll look at any legislation that gets on my desk and then decide.”

Backing away from an assault weapons ban–for now

At the start of 2020, Northam’s package of gun control bills garnered national attention as thousands stormed the state capitol in protest. Ultimately, Senate Democrats rejected the most controversial of them all: a ban on the new sale of assault-style weapons and the possession of high-capacity magazines.

At the time, Northam’s office assured the bill would be back in 2021. Yet going into his last regular legislative session as governor, the chief sponsor of the bill is deferring action. 

Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) told 8News that he’s not planning to introduce the ban in 2021 because it’s too big of a lift during a shortened session that will largely be held online. He doesn’t expect any of his Democratic colleagues to introduce it either, though it can’t be ruled out. 

8News asked Northam if waiting to revisit the issue is the right decision or if Democrats should be acting with more urgency to fulfill one of their top campaign promises. 

“It was a campaign promise that a lot of us ran on. I think it was a large reason why the House switched from Republican control to Democratic control,” Northam said. “That one bill on assault weapons didn’t move forward but six other pieces of legislation did and I think because of that Virginia is a safer state.”

“But I’ll leave that up to the discretion of the legislature and whatever they do I’ll be supportive of,” Northam continued.

Northam said he’s not personally pushing the General Assembly to address the measure in 2021.

Northam also addressed election security, Parole Board transparency, the 2021 gubernatorial race and more. Watch the full interview below:

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