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Vote Northam,  Fairfax and Herring / November 01, 2017
Two major party contenders — Ralph Northam for the Democrats, Ed Gillespie for the Republicans — are vying to become Virginia’s next governor in the statewide election coming up this Tuesday, Nov. 7. The South Boston News & Record and The Mecklenburg Sun regularly endorse candidates for state and federal electoral office based on our read of their positions, backgrounds and — yes — their individual moral characters. So in the governor’s race this year, let’s just make matters simple: Ralph Northam is a highly qualified and capable individual who lives up to the lofty standards that Virginia has traditionally demanded of its leaders. More important, he is the only candidate in the race who will lead the Commonwealth in a positive direction at a time when populist anger, hysteria and deceit are undermining democracy and corrupting the very notion that government belongs to all the people, not merely the select few.

There are times in life that call for a calm hand. The present moment is one of them. And few hands are any calmer than those belonging to Northam, a former Army surgeon and pediatric neurologist who is attempting to step up from his current job as lieutenant governor. Northam is a relative latecomer to politics, having run his first race in 2007 for Virginia State Senate at the age of 48. (He won). Growing up on the rural Eastern Shore, Northam attended Virginia Military Institute and after his undergraduate years trained as a doctor. Northam served eight years active duty in the Army, a stint that included caring for troops who were wounded in Operation Desert Storm. At VMI, Northam was elected president of the school’s Honor Court, considered the highest honor for a member of the student body (VMI’s “pope”). Most of his professional life has been spent in successful private practice in Norfolk as a pediatric neurologist.

As a member of the General Assembly, Northam is widely credited with cultivating good relationships across the aisle, but he also is considered by fellow Democrats to be an indefatigable campaigner for the party’s candidates around the state. His signature legislative achievement during two terms in the State Senate was shepherding the state’s restaurant smoking ban into law. As a medical doctor, Northam has taken special interest in strengthening Virginia’s health care system, particularly in rural and low-income areas.

His platform for governor is sturdy and practical: Be a good steward of the public finances, invest in K-12 schools, reverse recent declines in funding for higher education and build up career training programs in the community college setting and elsewhere. Northam has proposed a fairly modest tax cut — eliminating the state’s sales tax on groceries, a break that would cost around $381 million annually and deliver the lion’s share of benefits to working- and middle-class families. Achieving these proposals will depend on having a healthy economy, but that’s true of all candidates running for statewide office. And contrary to what these candidates generally say, a governor ‘s ability to steer Virginia’s economy upstream against a poor national economy is very limited. By the same token, governors generally receive too much credit when times are booming, in the Old Dominion and elsewhere. Perhaps the fairest way of stating the matter is that a governor can work at the margins to boost Virginia’s economy, but occupants of the office probably have more power to do harm than good.

Which brings us to Ed Gillespie, the Republican standard bearer. Gillespie’s campaign reflects his career bona fides: slick, polished and attuned to the prevailing winds of the moment. The son of a middle-class New Jersey shopkeeper, Gillespie cut his teeth in politics as a lobbyist and party insider who made millions by dispensing advice to other Republican candidates and officeholders, much of it bad. (His highest-profile job in government was as a White House advisor in the failed presidency of George W. Bush.) Unlike Northam, Gillespie has never held Virginia public office; only fairly recently has he broken away from the K Street lobbying world in Washington, D.C. to seek a new career across the Potomac as a political candidate. All the time, Gillespie has made zero contribution to the civic well-being of the Commonwealth, unless one considers lobbying activity for major corporations to be the height of public service.

Gillespie has sought to compensate for this lackluster profile by exuding an air of ambition and policy activism with his campaign. Give him credit: the sales job has been vigorous, even convincing to some. “OK, somebody ought to say this,” wrote The Roanoke Times in an editorial this week, “so we’ll say it: Ed Gillespie has a lot more ideas than Ralph Northam does.” As long as somebody says that, someone else should say this: Gillespie’s ideas are terrible. His main campaign pledge, a 10 percent cut in the state income tax rate, would send an overwhelming share of the benefits to upper-income households while wrecking the state’s budget, with hideous downdraft effects on public schools, law enforcement, courts and justice, the environment — you name it.

The recklessness of Gillespie’s platform is breathtaking but hardy surprising. He also proposes to sap local school divisions of revenue by rerouting taxpayer funds to private charter schools, and further refuses to rule out taxpayer-funded private school vouchers, which would wreck public education. In many respects his program is standard Republican fare: trickle-down economics, privatization and corporatism run amok.

It’s on so-called culture war issues, however, that Gillespie has really lost his way. As an advisor to the second President Bush, Gillespie was noted for advocating a soft line on immigration (in keeping with George W. Bush’s own thinking on the matter.) After narrowing defeating odious demagogue and white nationalist Corey Stewart in the GOP primary for governor, Gillespie has attempted to co-opt Stewart’s race-baiting, anti-immigrant themes in order to consolidate party support — most notably by running TV commercials that accuse Northam of supporting sanctuary cities (there are no such places in Virginia) and the MS-13 crime gang (The Latino youths depicted in Gillespie’s MS-13 ad were photographed in El Salvador, not Virginia; to add insult to underhandedness, Gillespie’s campaign lifted the image without permission of the photographer.) Mild-mannered, establishment-steeped Ed Gillespie is no Donald Trump, but he is desperate to gin up the votes of Trump supporters.

True to form, however, Gillespie tries to have it both ways: signaling to Trump voters that he’s one of them with inflammatory TV ads, while refusing to campaign in person with the president or express open support for his hard-right, radical agenda. It’s not surprising that Gillespie would try to keep a safe distance from Trump, given the president’s unpopularity. But a talent for political calculation has little to do with the quality of leadership, which Gillespie fails to offer, pro or con, in response to Trump’s recklessness and cruelty.

Through such reticence Gillespie demonstrates neither courage nor conviction, much less any sense that he understands how these two words could work together in the same sentence.

With his record of longtime service to people and admirable record of leadership in politics, Ralph Northam has proven himself to be a more than deserving choice for Virginia governor. In the context of the times, when such positive qualities in a candidate cannot be taken for granted, his election is essential. We wholeheartedly endorse Dr. Ralph Northam for governor; the election is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Please exercise your power as a citizen and vote.


Also Tuesday, Virginians will select their next lieutenant governor and attorney general. No surprises here: we endorse Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring, both Democrats, for the respective offices. Fairfax is a former federal prosecutor and two-time statewide candidate (he ran in the Democratic primary for attorney general in 2011) who is a rising star in the party. The Fairfax County candidate is a strong advocate for a higher minimum wage, gun safety legislation, expanded workforce training and clean energy development. The job of lieutenant governor in Virginia comes with few real powers, but it is a steppingstone to greater things. If elected, Fairfax will become only the second African American to win statewide office, after former governor Doug Wilder. We support him enthusiastically.

The Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Jill Holtzman Vogel, is a curious figure. She is an outwardly attractive, moderate-seeming Republican of a type the party would do well to embrace. Yet her record as a Virginia state senator is very much at odds with her presentation. Vogel sponsored one of the most odious pieces of legislation to come down the pike in generations — a bill that mandated transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions — and on the campaign trail she has run hard to the right, appearing this week at Corey Stewart’s annual political picnic. Outside of the legislature, she works for a boutique Richmond law practice, presenting herself, according to a Washington Post report in October, “as an ethics attorney who represents charities and nonprofit organizations” when her true “specialty is helping wealthy donors, corporations and political action committees influence elections — often in secret.” No thanks.

In the race for attorney general, we see no need for Virginia to change horses. Mark Herring, the Democratic incumbent, has done an excellent job in office policing against civil fraud, promoting sound criminal justice policies and responding to genuine problems such as the opioid crisis. Herring also has smartly kept the state out of divisive and unproductive legal fights to promote right-wing lost causes that would turn the clock back on basic notions of fairness and equity. His opponent, Richmond lawyer John Adams, has kept a low profile but can be expected to reignite the culture war battles that defined the last Republican to hold the office of attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli. Virginia has no further need for such over-the-top figures. We urge you instead to support a much-deserved second term for Herring.

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