WASHINGTON — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam talked U.S. immigration policy, Trump tariff impacts on the state and more when he visited the WTOP studio Wednesday for “Ask the Governor.”
Northam defended his decision to pull four Virginia National Guard troops and a helicopter from the Mexican border as a response to the president’s policy of separating children from those caught illegally crossing into the U.S.
“It is so un-American,” he said, “and as a father we cannot condone — as a society, as a country — separating children from their parents.”
The governor emphasized his earlier points that the equipment and troops would return once the policy stops and once the children are reunited with their parents.
Investigation at Staunton facility
Some of these unaccompanied minors are being held in Virginia facilities. This includes the Shenandoah Juvenile Facility in Staunton, where allegations of abuse recently emerged. (The center has denied the allegations.)
The three who made the allegations, Northam said, were no longer at the facility.
“We have interviewed the children, specifically at Shenandoah, and that investigation is ongoing, but we haven’t seen any evidence thus far,” he said.
The Staunton facility is owned and operated by the localities, but it’s managed by the commonwealth, and the governor indicated that it will remain under scrutiny.
“I think there’s nothing better than someone looking over your shoulder and saying: ‘We’ve heard that there’s some problems. We’re here to address those,’ and that’s what we’ll continue to do,” Northam said.
That ongoing dispute over the forced separations has made the debate over immigration policy a major topic in midterm election races like in the U.S. Senate. Republican Corey Stewart, a strong supporter of Trump’s policies, will face incumbent Democrat Tim Kaine for the U.S. Senate seat.
Northam, a Democrat, said his party has a strong message on the issue, one that can win in Virginia. Those affected by GOP policies, he said, include Iraqis and Iranians who helped the military as interpreters and with intelligence.
“For this country to turn our backs on the very people that have helped us is just unacceptable,” said Northam, who added that he was among those protesting at Dulles International Airport after a travel ban — since upheld — was imposed.
“We obviously want to keep our borders safe … but we also want to be welcoming in Virginia, and things like the travel ban do nothing more than promote fear mongering,” he said.
During the governor’s visit with WTOP’s Mark Lewis and Debra Feinstein and NBC Washington’s Julie Carey, the governor repeatedly emphasized the need for bipartisan redistricting. And in response to ongoing reports of election irregularities, Northam said he’s made some changes at the Board of Elections as a result.
“What you’ll see in the upcoming elections — we have addressed these,” he said.
On civility and policy
The small town of Lexington, Virginia, was placed in the national spotlight over the weekend, when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her party were asked to leave a restaurant Friday night.
Asked if he would use his office to “calm the temperature” of the current discourse, Northam said he has long promoted civility, before adding that such pushback from the public is a reaction to policies he called “immoral” — citing the forced separations, the travel ban and pulling out of the Paris climate agreement.
“These are things that Americans are very uncomfortable with,” the governor said.
Another topic discussed: a recent Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for states to collect taxes on sales over the internet. The ruling has been viewed as a windfall of sorts for states, and Virginia is no exception: It could boost tax revenues by an estimated $300 million more annually.
Fully benefiting from this, Northam said, will require some changes to the state code. After that, he said, it would likely go toward such things as a reserve fund, teachers salaries and transportation projects.
“It’s taxpayers’ money, and we want to be fiscally responsible,” said the governor, who added that he will be focusing on comprehensive tax reform soon.
Recent tariffs that the president imposed on China and U.S. allies are taking a toll on farmers in the commonwealth, said Northam, who urged the president and others at the federal level to vet their ideas before moving forward.
“Policies that are being tweeted out in the morning — that is no way to manage this country,” he said.
Northam added: “These tariffs are putting a tremendous impact — negative impact — on farmers throughout Virginia.”
Another sensitive issue involves a possible gas-compressor plant going up in Accokeek, Maryland — across the Potomac River from historic Mount Vernon in Fairfax County. Critics say the project would tarnish the tourist-drawing view from Washington’s home; Dominion Energy disagrees.
Northam indicated he’d look into the issue, before adding that he wants to see a bigger focus on renewable energy in the commonwealth. (By 2030, he said, he’d like to see at least 30 percent of energy generated in Virginia to come from renewables.)
“If it’s going to impact their view, if it’s going to contribute to environmental detriment, then it’s something I’m concerned about,” he said.
Northam also addressed what will probably concern commuters around Northern Virginia. Those who are already weary from construction along Interstate 66 can expect, unfortunately, more work.
In particular, VDOT will soon start a two-year project to add another eastbound lane between the Dulles Connector Road and Fairfax Drive — as well as direct access to eastbound I-66 from the West Falls Church Metro station.
The governor ensured the public that officials are doing everything they can to mitigate the rush-hour effects on commuters, such as doing work in evenings and after hours.
“We’re working with our contractors to make sure these are as less of a nuisance as possible,” he said.
The budget and ‘The Bachelorette’
On the topic of the commonwealth’s latest budget, Northam said it’s one that Virginians can be “proud of.” That budget includes a Medicaid expansion that he said will benefit 400,000 residents.
“It works for all Virginians, it’s structurally sound, and it expands health care,” Northam said.
Another thing commonwealth residents can be proud of: the state appearing on ABC’s “The Bachelorette.” An episode that will air Monday night, he said, was filmed around Richmond.
When asked if he himself would be appearing in the episode, the governor declined to comment.
“We can’t talk about any of the details,” Northam said.