EASTERN SHORE, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- Gov.-elect Ralph Northam spoke with the Eastern Shore News recently about his administration's priorities and his love for the Eastern Shore.
"I've always been so proud, anywhere I go, to tell folks I'm from the Eastern Shore and talk to them about the Eastern Shore," Northam said in a Dec. 7 phone interview.
Northam is only the second Virginia governor to hail from the Eastern Shore. The first was Henry A. Wise, who was elected in 1855. Northam also became the first lieutenant governor from the Shore, after winning the November 2013 election.
"To have the honor of having Virginians choose me as being the 73rd governor. It's a tremendous honor and privilege," Northam said.
The governor-elect gave a glimpse into a topic he plans to address during his inauguration speech, saying he will draw on his boating experiences to make a point.
"Some of my inauguration speech will be talking about learning the importance of a compass out on the Bay and in the ocean — and now Virginia, and I think this country, is looking for a moral compass. I look forward to being a leader and providing a moral compass for Virginia," Northam said.
Retired Circuit Judge Glen Tyler of the Eastern Shore will administer the oath of office to Northam in Richmond on Jan. 13, as he did when Northam became lieutenant governor.
"He and I are dear friends, and I am really excited that he has agreed to do that," Northam said.
Northam also gave a shout-out to two other fellow Eastern Shoremen — his 93-year-old father, retired Judge Wescott Northam, and historian and retired teacher Dennis Custis. Of those two, he said, "If you put them in the same room, you could learn just about anything you want to about the Eastern Shore."
Growing up on the Eastern Shore
Northam recalled growing up near Onancock; attending public schools during the era of desegregation; and working various jobs as a young man, including on Floyd Nock's farm, as a mate on charter boats out of Wachapreague, and driving a boat that ferried workers to Tangier Island daily one summer when the airstrip there was being repaved.
"I just have nothing but good memories," he said.
Later, as a medical student at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Northam did a memorable rotation with neurology specialist Dr. Robert Paschall, a powerhouse of a doctor who has served the Eastern Shore for three decades.
Then, as a pediatric neurologist practicing in Norfolk, Northam for around 15 years traveled to the Shore monthly to conduct a clinic for Eastern Shore Rural Health patients at Franktown Community Health Center.
"I've just had so many wonderful experiences there, and am proud to be able to give back and really do everything I can to put the Eastern Shore on the map," he said.
Northam spoke to the News about his administration's priorities — for the Eastern Shore and other rural areas, in particular:
"Broadband is at the top of my list," he said, noting he had participated in a meeting earlier that day with members of a recently formed technology workgroup.
"I told them this was my top priority for rural Virginia — that is, to make sure that everybody has service to broadband. You can't start a business, you can't grow a business, you can't educate children without access to broadband — so it's very important," Northam said.
Northam's campaign in September issued a detailed technology policy plan, which, among other points, said a Northam administration would continue the work of the Smart Community Workgroup begun under Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
In an executive directive issued earlier this year, McAuliffe charged the workgroup with formulating "a strategy that leverages existing assets and programs to enhance collaboration across functional areas to: develop a replicable model for Virginia Smart Communities; identify partners and resources; align smart systems and devices from diverse sectors such as transportation, energy, manufacturing, and healthcare — in fundamentally new ways to enable communities to improve services, promote economic growth, and enhance the quality of life; (and) establish Virginia as a global leader for the development of 'smart communities.'"
Also among the Northam administration's priorities for the Eastern Shore and other rural parts of Virginia is job creation.
"I hear people all the time — and I'm one of them — that say 'I'm from the Eastern Shore or I'm from the southwest — but we need to hear people say, 'I live on the Eastern Shore and I proudly work and raise my family there.'
"So we need to bring rural Virginia back. Jobs are very important," Northam said.
Education — from preschool to college — is also on Northam's mind.
"Access to a world-class education is important, so I want to do everything I can to support the community college," he said of the Eastern Shore of Virginia's sole higher education institution.
"We need to market what that community college has to offer," he said of Eastern Shore Community College, where a new academic and administration building is currently under construction.
Northam also wants to see more emphasis placed on vocational and technical training at the high school level, as well as on "totally revising" the Standards of Learning tests.
"We want accountability for our teachers and students, but we need to teach our students creativity, rather than how to take a multiple-choice test," he said.
Early childhood education also will receive special emphasis in his administration, Northam said.
"They have that in Northampton; I'm always proud to let people know that, but we need to make sure that every child on the Eastern Shore has access to a world-class education — and it starts with pre-K," he said.
Northam said another priority is "quality and affordable health care."
He commended Riverside Health System for building a new hospital on the Eastern Shore.
"It's a beautiful facility. As a matter of fact, my dad was a patient in there. What an asset for the Shore! I hope the Eastern Shore will really grasp that and take advantage of it and help it be viable and receive their care there," he said.
Northam praised the cooperation shown between Riverside and Eastern Shore Rural Health System to provide health care to Eastern Shore residents.
"I think they are actually a model on the Eastern Shore for the rest of the state, especially rural Virginia," he said.
Northam, who is himself a military veteran, also addressed the matter of veterans' health care on the Shore.
"I want to do everything I can to make Virginia the most veteran-friendly state in the country, and I know there's been an issue" with Eastern Shore veterans having to travel across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to access health care at a Veterans' Administration medical center in Hampton, he said, adding a plan is being worked on to enable Shore veterans to instead receive medical care through Eastern Shore Rural Health.
"We need to do everything we can to make sure we take care of our veterans. I'll continue to work on that," Northam said.
In the area of economic development, Northam said it needs to be looked at in terms of each region's resources.
"Obviously, our resources on the Eastern Shore are agriculture, forestry and folks that work on the water. Aquaculture — the growing of clams and oysters — has been very successful, and I want to continue to promote that" — which Northam said includes ensuring the Bay and other waterways are clean.
He would like to see additional aquaculture options pursued on the Shore, such as raising fish.
Promoting tourism also is a priority.
"People love to come to the Eastern Shore and visit and enjoy our hotels and restaurants, our waterways — and we want to continue to promote that as well," he said.
Northam also spoke about a challenge facing Virginia that especially affects the Eastern Shore — sea-level rise.
Northam as a state senator successfully introduced legislation to study sea-level rise.
"We needed to do that as the first step, so that we could then apply for grants. Now we have received federal grant money that we are using for a resiliency program, but that's an ongoing issue," he said, mentioning Tangier in particular as a vulnerable area that needs help to address the problem.
Northam also spoke about the Wallops area, saying NASA and the spaceport's presence there "has been a shot in the arm for the Eastern Shore economically — and it also supports science."
Northam said, while the state has to balance its budget each year and "be frugal with our taxpayers' money, I'll do everything I can to continue to support that program."