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After Racist Incident, Can Va. Gov. Northam Be A Bipartisan Dealmaker?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, is trying to save his job with a public reckoning of his past, a past that includes dressing in blackface. He is facing some challenges. Northam had to cancel the first stop on his so-called reconciliation tour at a historically black university because the students didn't want him there. WVTF's statehouse reporter Mallory Noe-Payne has more.

MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: Walk the halls of Virginia's capitol, and it's a lot quieter than it was three weeks ago. Governor Ralph Northam doesn't plan to go anywhere soon, and Republican Senator Frank Wagner says he's OK with that.

FRANK WAGNER: Were those photos hurtful? Sure, they are. I don't mean to downplay that, but I certainly don't think it impacts the governor's ability to perform.

NOE-PAYNE: Wagner is a top Republican who is still willing to work with the governor. Now Northam just needs to convince the rest of the state. In an interview with CBS, the 59-year-old says he's capable of leading Virginia forward.

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RALPH NORTHAM: Virginia needs someone that can heal. There's no better person to do that than a doctor.

NOE-PAYNE: A former pediatric neurologist, Northam built his political persona around being a caring doctor. He has a quiet, sometimes fumbling demeanor that, since he admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s, has been more a liability. But for a long time, it was an asset. Northam could charm voters and politicians, no matter the party. And he quickly established himself as a governor who gets things done. Here he is addressing lawmakers in January.

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NORTHAM: The Virginia way charges us to put people ahead of politics and to leave this place better than we found it. I am proud to say we are off to a good start.

NOE-PAYNE: In his single year in office, Northam was able to negotiate some major bipartisan deals, from landing Amazon's second headquarters, to forcing the state's electric utility to clean up an environmental disaster. Most notably, he expanded Medicaid to 400,000 low-income Virginians, something his predecessor couldn't do in four years in office. All of this, with Republicans in control of the legislature.

DELORES MCQUINN: He had the capacity to reach across the aisle and work with individuals who were not of the same party.

NOE-PAYNE: Democratic delegate Delores McQuinn says now the Legislative Black Caucus can leverage that ability.

MCQUINN: To move - help to move race relations forward and make progress. In three years, I am positive that there will be a difference in this commonwealth.

NOE-PAYNE: The Black Caucus is leaning on Northam to increase funding for poor school districts, and Virginia's ACLU has called on him to support a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to former felons. Both issues disproportionately affect African-Americans. But Anna Scholl with Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group, hesitates over whether a man who once wore blackface can truly be effective in pushing those causes.

ANNA SCHOLL: 'Cause there is a lot of deep work and a learning curve there for the governor, and we're waiting to see if that's something that he really, truly and deeply, is going to engage in.

NOE-PAYNE: Scholl and others say his first steps since the scandal broke aren't promising. He cut a tax deal with Republicans that they say shortchanges poor black communities in Virginia. For NPR, I'm Mallory Noe-Payne in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.