In Northern Virginia, bulwark of the long Democratic win streak, Gov. Ralph Northam this past weekend ran into the Republican who wants his job: Glenn Youngkin. Northam also saw the Democrat who had the job and wants it back: Terry McAuliffe. The three men and their spouses were among the swells at Wolf Trap, the performing arts center, for its 50th anniversary party.
Northam had another celebration in mind when he and Youngkin briefly chatted. Northam was taken aback that the plutocrat-turned-politician made no mention of it: that Virginia again had been declared by business news channel CNBC the best state in which to do business — a distinction prized by governors in both parties in the escalating arms race that is economic development.
“At least he could ... say congratulations on how the economy was doing … being the No. 1 state in this country to do business,” Northam said. “That’s something that every Virginian, especially ones who want to lead this commonwealth, should be proud of.”
Referring to Youngkin’s disputed description of the current, strengthening economy and the downturn that blew a huge hole in the budget in 2014, when McAuliffe began his governorship, Northam said, “To make no mention of it and even to go a step farther and say we’ve run the economy in the ditch, he needs to go back and see where this economy was eight years ago.”
You have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch Ralph Northam, usually a model of manners, unloading on an adversary.
It was about 5:30 a.m. Monday when Northam — riding a Washington-bound Amtrak train between downtown Richmond and suburban Henrico County to spotlight Virginia’s $3.7 billion investments in rail — had choice words for Youngkin while talking up his administration’s record on the economy and the budget, both of which have surged because of federal coronavirus aid and pent-up demand.
Northam is traveling the state, visiting regions red and blue, to talk up new businesses — from a plumbing manufacturer outside Martinsville to a meat packer near Harrisonburg. All are in the slipstream that is the Amazon get.
With pandemic-fueled joblessness down to 4% — the third-lowest level in the South — Northam, heading into the final 100 days of his consecutively nonrenewable term, reports that 94,000 jobs have been created on his watch because of a record $48 billion in investment. The budget is similarly robust: a $2.6 billion surplus; $3.3 billion in reserves, both all-time highs.
Youngkin, a former financier, argues — as he did again Tuesday in the second and final televised debate — that all is not well. He contends the state’s economic bounce-back from COVID-19 lags that of neighboring states and Virginia lost out on industrial opportunities because of, among other things, higher energy costs.
Northam poked Youngkin for dissembling; for example, saying privately he must temper what he says publicly about restricting abortion to avoid frightening swing voters. Northam also said Youngkin’s tax-cut scheme — even a grocery-tax rollback he and McAuliffe favor — is a threat to education and transportation funding; that tax relief should be part of a larger, bipartisan effort to update the tax code.
“To be in his group and tell them, ‘I can’t really talk about these things because I need the votes but once I get elected, we’re going to do things a little bit different’ — I call it, being from the Eastern Shore, it’s being phony,” said Northam, signaling he views Youngkin as a dilettante with a lot of money and not a lot of familiarity with government.
“Put the gas tax on hold? Where is he going to get the money from for rail, which we’re expanding, and all of these projects — the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel? That’s a $3 billion project. Expansion of 64, I-66 ... that money doesn’t drop out of trees. To go forward with these gimmicks like he is, it’s dangerous and it’s not going to work.”
A Youngkin spokesman did not return texts and telephone calls seeking comment on Northam’s critique of his candidate, one that signals the governor’s expanding role in the campaign to choose his successor and a mindfulness of a legacy of significant and surprising advances — in health care, transportation, racial equity and law enforcement — that Republicans contend are too much, too soon, even for a multi-hued, suburban-dominated state.
The Youngkin campaign’s silence on Northam may have to do with the Republican’s strategy of selective engagement with the press; to minimize push-back on such perilous issues as his opposition to mandatory COVID-19 jabs and his compulsory fealty to Donald Trump.
But Youngkin might also want to avoid a fight with Northam, whose approval rating is falling, but unlike Joe Biden’s, is above water. Besides, as the incumbent, Northam has a bully pulpit Youngkin’s nonstop television advertising can’t match, despite his $17 million-and-counting personal investment in his candidacy.
Northam succeeded McAuliffe. McAuliffe aims to succeed Northam, both serving each other’s second term — or hoping to. That, Northam said, is a continuum voters should value; that they shouldn’t turn the state over to an arriviste who “hasn’t a clue how Virginia government works.”
But say this for Youngkin: If he wins, he’ll be the least prepared person for Virginia governor since Terry McAuliffe was elected the first time.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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