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Ralph Northam, the current governor of Virginia. Photo: US News & World Report

Ralph Shearer Northam, born September 13, 1959, is an American politician and physician serving as the 73rd Governor of Virginia since January 13, 2018. A pediatric neurologist by occupation, he was an officer in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1984 to 1992. Northam, a member of the Democratic Party, served as the 40th Lieutenant Governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018 prior to winning the governorship against Republican nominee Ed Gillespie in the 2017 election.

Ralph Northam's Early Life

Northam was born in the town of Nassawadox on Virginia's Eastern Shore on September 13, 1959. He and his older brother of two years, Thomas, were raised on a water-side farm, just outside Onancock, Virginia. The family grew a variety of crops and tended livestock on their seventy-five-acre (30 ha) property. As a teenager, Northam worked on a ferry to Tangier Island and as a deckhand on fishing charters; he also worked on a neighbor's farm and as a "stock boy" at Meatland grocery store. He and Thomas attended desegregated public schools. Northam graduated from Onancock High School, where his class was predominately African American.

Northam's mother, Nancy B. Shearer, was originally from Washington, D.C. She was a part-time nurse at Northampton-Accomack Memorial Hospital, and her father was a surgeon. Nancy Shearer died in 2009. Northam's father, Wescott B. Northam, served as a lawyer and is a veteran of World War II; he entered politics in the 1960s, serving three terms as Commonwealth's Attorney for Accomack County, Virginia. After losing the election to a fourth term, Wescott Northam was appointed as a Circuit Court judge for Accomack and Northampton counties. Wescott Northam's own father, Thomas Long Northam, had served as a judge in the same court.

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Photo: Business Insider

Thomas Long Northam died when Wescott Northam was only fourteen, and a few years later, the family farm in Modest Town, Virginia, where Wescott had been born, was sold. The farm had first come into the family through Ralph Northam's great-great-grandfather, James, who along with his son, Levi Jacob, had owned slaves – one of whom, Raymond Northam, was freed to enlist in the 9th Regiment of Colored Troops (Union Army, Civil War). Ralph Northam was unaware of his family's slave-owning history until his father conducted research into their ancestry during the time of Northam's gubernatorial campaign. Upon learning about this part of his family's history, Northam said, "The news that my ancestors owned slaves disturbs and saddens me, but the topic of slavery has always bothered me. My family’s complicated story is similar to Virginia’s complex history. We’re a progressive state, but we once had the largest number of slaves in the union."

In high school, Northam was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" and graduated as salutatorian. He was a member of his school's basketball and baseball teams. Northam graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1981, where he served as president of VMI's honor court and received a bachelor's degree in biology. He went on to Eastern Virginia Medical School, earning his M.D. degree in 1984.

U.S. Army and Medical Career

From 1984 to 1992 he served as a United States Army medical officer. During his Army service, he completed a pediatric residency at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, followed by a child neurology fellowship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. During Operation Desert Storm, he treated evacuated casualties at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

Northam was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1992 at the rank of major, after having completed eight years of service. Since 1992, Northam has been a pediatric neurologist at Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia.

Ralph Northam's Politics Career

Governor of Virginia (2018 - present)

In February 2015, just over a year into his term as lieutenant governor, Northam confirmed his interest in running for Governor of Virginia in 2017. He made these intentions official on November 17, 2015, via an email to supporters.

In the Democratic primary, Northam faced Tom Perriello, who had previously served as a Congressman from Virginia and as a diplomat in the Obama administration. The primary campaign was often described as a proxy battle between the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party, represented by Perriello, and the Hillary Clinton wing, represented by Northam, although this take was dismissed as little more than a "talking point" by The Washington Post's editorial board, which praised both candidates and wrote, "the policy differences between the two, though real, are not enormous". The Washington Post endorsed Northam primarily on the basis of his "experience" and "temperament". In its endorsement, the publication explained that the next governor would likely have to work with a Republican-controlled legislature and wrote,

"If any Democratic governor can nudge GOP majorities in his direction, it’s Mr. Northam. That matters in a state where governors, barred from running for consecutive terms, have one brief shot at getting things done."

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Northam and his wife in the election. Photo: The New York Times

On June 13, 2017, Northam won the Democratic nomination with 56% of the vote to Perriello's 44%. In the general election, Northam faced Ed Gillespie, who had previously served as Counselor to the President under George W. Bush, chair of the Republican National Committee, and chair of the Republican Party of Virginia. Northam's campaign funds were heavily depleted by the end of the primary race. He was left with around $1.75 million, which amounted to roughly half of Gillespie's remaining funds. Northam quickly gained the advantage, however – by the end of the summer, his available funds had grown twice as large as Gillespie's, with two months left in the campaign. Northam led Gillespie among small donors, as well: "5,900 donations under $100 to Gillespie's 2,100."

In October 2017, the Northam campaign released a small number of flyers omitting Northam's running-mate for lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax. These were released at the request of Laborers' International Union of North America, which had endorsed only part of that year's Democratic ticket. Northam and that year's Democratic nominee for Attorney General, Mark Herring, were both endorsed by LIUNA and were both included on the flyer. LIUNA withheld its endorsement from Fairfax and explained that Fairfax opposes the construction of natural gas pipelines that are favored by the organization. As Fairfax is black, while Northam and Herring are both white, some activists criticized the decision to accommodate LIUNA's request. All houses that received the LIUNA flyers also received standard campaign flyers including Fairfax.

Northam was elected governor on November 7, 2017, and assumed office on January 10, 2018.

Lieutenant Governor of Virginia (2014 - 2018)

Northam was elected lieutenant governor on November 5, 2013, and assumed office on January 11, 2014.

Virginia State Senate (2008-2014)

Northam served as a Democratic member of the Virginia State Senate, representing District 6, from 2008 to 2014.

Ralph Northam's Personal Life

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Northam with his wife and his two children. Photo: NBC12.com

Northam lives in the Executive Mansion in Richmond. He and his wife Pam have two adult children, Wes and Aubrey. Northam's brother, Thomas Northam, is a lawyer and the law partner of Virginia State Senate member Lynwood Lewis, who was elected to the State Senate to replace Northam when he resigned his State Senate seat to assume the position of lieutenant governor. Their father, Wescott Northam, is a retired Accomack County judge, former Commonwealth's Attorney, and Navy veteran.

Northam belongs to a predominately black Baptist church in Capeville, Virginia and serves as the vice-chair of the Fort Monroe Authority, which oversees Fort Monroe, a Civil War historic site where Union General Benjamin Butler sheltered freed slaves. In his free time, Northam enjoys working on classic cars. He owns a 1953 Oldsmobile and a 1971 Corvette.

Northam is a recreational runner and a competitor in races including the Richmond Road Runners' First Day 5k and the Monument Avenue 10K race.

On September 25, 2020, Northam and his wife tested positive for COVID-19 after one of their staff members became infected. The governor was asymptomatic; his wife suffered mild symptoms.

The governor stated during his press briefing Wednesday, December 2, that a vaccine could be available within the next couple of weeks. Additionally, Virginia would receive a shipment of 70,000 doses, primarily for health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

Gov. Northam said it will ultimately take several months for everyone to get vaccinated, and during that time people should continue using precautions to reduce the spread of the virus.

Officials are concerned about a possible post-Thanksgiving surge of COVID-19 cases. Areas of the commonwealth have already seen cases connected to folks gathering in groups after work, or school, or related to church events.

For more biography of other governors of the U.S, please check out our KnowInsider!

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