Even back home, Northam faces mixed support

ACCOMACK CO., Va. (Delmarva Now) -- Some politicians struggle to retain local support once they hit the big stage.

Al Gore famously fumbled his home state of Tennessee to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. Donald Trump may have pulled off a dramatic victory in last year's Electoral College, but he did so without any help from his native New York.

And then there's Ralph Northam, who doesn't seem to have that problem. He has appeared on a ballot three times in his birthplace of Accomack County — twice for state senator and once for lieutenant governor — and won them all.

Northam faces his biggest test Nov. 7, when he squares off against Republican stalwart Ed Gillespie for governor. If elected, Northam will become the first governor from the Eastern Shore since Virginia's antebellum period.

The race has become draped in national significance as one of the first large-scale gauges of the nation's mood since Donald Trump was elected a year ago.

Politicians, party strategists and the media are likely to devote much of their attention to the state's key voting blocs: deep-blue Northern Virginia and Richmond versus the conservative strongholds in Hampton Roads and the rural western half of the state.

The 9,000 or so voters who show up to the polls in Accomack represent but a drop in the commonwealth's gigantic bucket. But it likely still ranks as a must-win in a race expected to be come down to a smattering of votes.

Although it's Northam's home turf, his performance in recent elections and the county's right-leaning electorate suggest it may still swing toward Gillespie.

For one thing, it's typically a GOP bastion. Trump won 54 percent of Accomack's vote last year while picking up just 44 percent of support statewide. The county hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996.

And while Northam has won all three of his previous elections in Accomack, his support has never surpassed 56 percent there.

There are other signs, though, that suggest he may carry the county just the same: actual signs. In and immediately around his hometown of Onancock, an informal survey in late October of political signs outside homes and businesses showed Northam with a nearly 2-1 lead.

One belongs to Jack Richardson, owner of an art gallery on the outskirts of the downtown strip.

"I think he's a more moderate person, that's considerate, who would care for all the people," said Richardson, who described himself as a one-time Republican who grew estranged from the party several years ago.

Richardson is among the seeming few in Accomack who doesn't know Northam personally nor met him. He likes his background as a Virginia Military Institute graduate, Army veteran and pediatric neurologist.

But Richardson worries that politics could change him sometime down the road.

"You can elect a normal, decent person, and they can be taken over by a lobby," he cautioned, regarding special interest groups.

Parker Dooley isn't affected by such ambivalence.

“I think he’s an upright, honest, humble guy that’s interested in helping people," said Dooley, a former chairman of the Accomack Democratic Party and retired medical director of the Eastern Shore Rural Health System. “He’s just led a whole admirable public life.”

Dooley mentored Northam for a few weeks when he spent a rotation on the Eastern Shore during his medical training. He doesn't remember the up-and-coming physician from that time. But he came to know him well when Northam, now based in Norfolk, would regularly cross the bay to see patients who were often too poor to pay.

"He's been a tremendous help," Dooley said.

He was surprised when Northam first ran for office in 2007, “but I was very glad to see that because he’s the kind of person we need in politics," he said.

Dooley cheered Northam's tie-breaking vote in the state Senate in 2014 in support of an effort to repeal a controversial law requiring most women to have ultrasounds before getting an abortion. And he applauds the candidate's support for expanding Medicaid.

Northam's easygoing manner, though, may be his undoing, Dooley fears.

“I don’t think he’s assertive enough sometimes. He has a very calm demeanor and sometimes that doesn’t come across as strength in a television interview," he said.

His calm bearing doesn't bother another Accomack supporter, though.

"I like his manner. I like the way he speaks," said Chip Hall, a retired financial adviser. "He doesn't have an edge to his tongue. That's rare for politics."

Hall said he has voted for several Republicans over the years, including Ronald Reagan and both presidents Bush. (Northam has admitted he, too, voted for George W. Bush twice. But he has repudiated those votes, saying he wasn't paying much attention to politics at the time.)

After finishing lunch at Janet's General Store Cafe in Onancock, Hall offered a prediction on Northam's chances locally: "This is not the area where he'll do well."

Will Northam be an Al Gore, Donald Trump or someone else Nov. 7? Accomack will decide.

Delmarva Now


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