Virginia lieutenant governor Northam visits Staunton to boost gubernatorial bid

Ralph Northam, democratic candidate for governor in 2017, waves at the Staunton Christmas Parade on Monday evening in Staunton.

Northam is a pediatric neurologist. He has a long list of concerns about Virginia’s providing of health care and issues such as opioid addiction, chronic diseases and even educating students in Virginia medical schools about prescriptions.

“We’re going into medical schools and educating students about managing chronic pain and how to recognize opioid addiction,’’ said Northam, Virginia’s lieutenant governor and presumptive Democratic nominee for governor in 2017.

Northam visited Staunton on Monday to mingle with fellow Democrats at the Mill Street Grill. Later, he traveled in a car down Beverley Street as a participant in the city’s annual Christmas parade.

If elected, Northam knows the commonwealth economy must get top priority. “We need to diversify and prepare our young people,’’ said Northam, who said it is important to emphasize STEM education with the state’s young population. Beyond the education, he said the commonwealth needs to exploit the available jobs in cyber technology and biotechnology.

James Madison University political scientist Bob Roberts said Northam must craft a strategy for attracting high paying jobs. The candidate may also have to deal with the downsizing of the federal bureaucracy by President-elect Donald Trump. That possible change would have a major impact on Virginia, particularly in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, where many federal employees reside.

Another of Northam’s concerns that would resonate in the Shenandoah Valley is the lack of broadband internet access across the commonwealth. Augusta County has embarked on such an initiative, seeking to get broadband in pockets of the county that lack it.

Northam said it “is unacceptable to not have broadband across the commonwealth. “ He also wants to be sure cell telephone coverage is available to all Virginians.

Born on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and raised on a rural farm, Northam is a graduate of both VMI and Eastern Virginia Medical School.

David Bottenfield, the chairman of the Staunton Democratic Committee, said Northam’s life has been one totally devoted to public service.

“He was a career Army doctor who went into private practice,’’ said Bottenfield. Northam has worked for many years as a pediatric neurologist in Norfolk. His political career began in 2007, when he won election to Virginia Senate representing portions of Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore.  Northam is wrapping up a term as Virginia’s lieutenant governor.

During his term as lieutenant governor, Northam has collaborated with Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Pre-K education. The result was a federal grant that has created thousands of new slots for children. 

“As a child neurologist, I know about early childhood and brain development,’’ Northam said.

Bottenfield said Northam is a “down-to-earth kind of guy’’ who can identify with both middle class and blue collar voters.

“He wants to improve their lives,” he said.

Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, served with Northam in the Virginia Senate. He considers Northam a friend, and said the candidate's genial disposition should not take away from his strengths.

“I would not underestimate him as a strong contender,’’ Hanger said.

And while Republicans battle over the winter and spring to decide among four candidates who will be their nominee, Northam can boost his profile across Virginia as the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Attorney General Mark Herring was mentioned as potential Democratic candidate for governor, but is now committed to running for attorney general again.

JMU’s Roberts said Northam has a strong chance of winning the 2017 election if he is able to get Democratic voters to the polls.

“His issue is mobilization. He must mobilize Democrats,’’ said Roberts. The political scientist said Northam needs a turnout in the 50 percent range statewide.

After Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s Virginia victory in November and Barack Obama’s in 2008 and 2012, Roberts said “we’re a blue state.” But he said Virginia can become red if the voter turnout is not substantial for the governor’s race.

Northam plans to work hard to get the Democratic base out. He believes his roots will help in rural Virginia.

“If anyone understands rural Virginia, it’s me,’’ he said. “I will listen to rural Virginia and hear their needs.”

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