RICHMOND, Va. — In a matter of weeks, Gov. Ralph Northam will return to his medical practice in Hampton Roads, leaving Virginia a more diverse and inclusive state.
His legislative agenda was driven in part by a very public and painful acknowledgment of his racial blind spots.
"Well, I'm a better person, and hopefully Virginia is a better Commonwealth," a relaxed and reflective Northam said from his office in Richmond.
Growing up on a small farm on the Eastern Shore, a product of public schools, Northam said he didn't dare dream of someday being governor.
"I would have said, 'Not in my wildest dreams,'" Northam added.
The Virginia Military Institute grad's first call to serve his country came as an Army Medic.
"I've always wanted to help people. I served in the Army for eight years," Northam said.
In 2017, the affable Northam, with a gift for persuasion, became the Commonwealth's 73rd governor. A little more than a year into his term, the man who brought an easy bedside manner to politics would find himself in a fight for his political life. A medical school yearbook picture surfaced showing someone in blackface on Northam's page.
"That was a very difficult time for Virginia, and I regret for having Virginia go through that," he said.
Northam would later deny it was him in the picture. Days later came a very painful and public show of what the governor did not know about race and racism.
At a news conference, where many felt he would announce he was stepping down, Northam instead admitted to wearing blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest years ago. The First Lady stepped in as the governor seemingly entertained showing off his dance moves.
While many called for his resignation, Northam said he worked hard to learn from his mistake.
"After that happened, I've been on a lot of listening tours. I've done a lot of reading. I've learned a lot. I tell people the more I know, the more I can do," Northam said.
What would follow would be a series of the most progressive legislative accomplishments in the history of the Commonwealth, ending the death penalty, legalizing marijuana, restoring voting rights to felons, taking down a Confederate Monument.
"I was right out on Monument Avenue when Robert E. Lee came down. It was a powerful moment, especially to see a contractor who’s an African American who is part of taking it down. I think it was a powerful message," Northam proudly said.
Northam said it was the hate at Charlottesville and the knee on George Floyd's neck that convinced him the time had come to build a more inclusive Virginia, and personal reckoning with race, notwithstanding.
Northam called Amazon selecting Northern Virginia for its second headquarters his biggest get, and the Commonwealth being named the best state for business several years running his proudest moment, close behind delivering for Hampton Roads the massive widening of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnels.
As for his legacy, it's a humble request.
"Just being able to help people, that gets me up in the morning, to help individuals, and I’ve been looking over 8.5 million Virginians for the last four years. I think Virginia is in a better place and when we turn over the keys on January 15th," he said.
A man from the Eastern Shore dared to dream big and is grateful Virginians stuck with him, eager to share the lessons of the journey with the next generation.
"I think we’re all human and one of the things that can I teach a talk about speeches what we’re going to make mistakes and don’t be afraid of that but when you make a mistake, learn from it, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try to do better than next day," Northam said.