Ralph Northam sworn as governor, pledges less toxic politics

2018-01-14 | The Virginian-Pilot

Jan. 13--RICHMOND -- Gov. Ralph Northam took the oath of office Saturday with a pledge to make politics less toxic and more productive.

Speaking to a crowd of 4,000 gathered in dreary, cold weather on the south portico of the state Capitol, Northam promised to govern with a "moral compass."

"It can be hard to find our way in a time when there's so much shouting, when nasty, shallow tweets take the place of honest debate," Northam, the state's 73rd governor, said. "We are bigger than this."

"You don't have to be loud to lead," he said earlier.

Full text of Gov. Ralph Northam's inaugural address

The folksy pediatric neurologist, who grew up on the Eastern Shore and lives in Norfolk, easily won Virginia's closely watched governor's race in November, powered in large part by a surge of voters unhappy with the Trump administration. Democrats swept all three statewide offices and made major gains in the House of Delegates.

Northam leaned heavily on his background in his inaugural address, invoking his childhood and his time as a student at the Virginia Military Institute. Northam said the tradition-bound military academy with a strict honor code continues to help guide his actions.

The speech also presented a progressive agenda, including Medicaid expansion, gun reform, economic development in rural Virginia and abortion rights.

As a doctor, Northam said he often offered a sympathetic ear to patients. He said he'll bring the same approach as governor.

"Virginians didn't send us here to be Democrats or Republicans -- they sent us here to solve problems."

Northam also made several promises: to visit every city, county, public college and university during his tenure; continue to care for patients at Remote Area Medical that gives free care to low-income Virginians; and personally welcome home Virginia National Guard units when they return home from overseas.

Lastly, he said: "My door will always be open to you."

Charlie Stanton of Norfolk, a Northam supporter, was in the stands Saturday. Northam officiated Stanton's wedding during the campaign, Stanton said.

"The (inaugural) speech was as warm as the weather was cold," Stanton said. "I think I reacted as most of (the) crowd did -- it is an absolute need and moral imperative to expand Medicaid."

He also was excited to hear Northam cite the VMI Honor Code.

"He's a down-to-earth guy," Stanton said. "He's not going to lie or steal from you and won't put up (with) policies that hurt Virginia. It's in his political DNA to try and work (together) and find common ground solutions."

Northam also pledged to govern in the mold of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who made economic development a key focus of his term.

Northam, who has kept many of McAuliffe's staff in senior positions, has pledged to push for many of his predecessor's priorities, including expanding Medicaid and enacting stricter gun laws.

A former state senator and lieutenant governor with strong relationships with key lawmakers, Northam will still likely face a tough path pushing those priorities through the General Assembly. Republicans hold a two-seat majority in both chambers.

Northam faces a host of others challenges. Virginia's economy continues a tepid growth, the state's budget faces long-term strains in education and health care. People against the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelnes shouted "life is water" on Capitol Square before the ceremony. Northam has supported the proposed pipelines. And the economic, political and cultural divides within the state appear to be growing, particularly between rural and urban areas.

An example: a keenly felt split in the state over what to do with its numerous Confederate monuments and statues, which Northam has said he'd like to see moved to museums.

During his speech, he alluded to Virginia's complex history, talking about the church on a Richmond hill where Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death." Northam said the bottom of that hill soon had one of the largest slave markets in the country.

"This unique heritage endows us with a responsibility to shape the future -- to leave this place better than we found it," Northam said. "That's the Virginia way."

Justin Fairfax, a Northern Virginia attorney, was sworn into office as lieutenant governor and Attorney General Mark Herring was sworn in for a second term Saturday. The two and Northam, along with the rest of the inaugural committee, wore traditional three-piece "morning suits."

Before the inauguration, McAuliffe handed off the keys to the Executive Mansion and said he was leaving behind two of its chickens. Northam said he grew up raising chickens, so he'll feel "right at home."

He then joined all 10 living governors for a photo in the Jefferson Room of the Capitol. Their wives joined first lady Pam Northam for a photo. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, as well as members of the state's congressional delegation and state lawmakers, attended.

The inauguration was followed by a parade, which included a three-helicopter flyover, 1,500 VMI cadets and 26 groups from around the state, including the Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Hampton Roads Pride.

The new governor also signed three executive orders: banning discrimination in state government; enumerating power to his chief of staff, Clark Mercer; and empowering himself to declare a state of emergency when needed.

After the parade, hundreds waited in line to greet the new first family in the Executive Mansion.

The couple received guests -- the event was open to the public -- in the State Dining Room of the mansion for an hour and a half.

"Hi, I'm Ralph," Northam told visitors. "Nice to see you. This is my wife, Pam."

Among the topics discussed in the quick 30-second encounters:

--The cold weather. The Northams said they had heated seats. "At least one part of us was warm," the governor said.

--The campaign. "We helped you with the election," said two young African American girls. "Well it paid off. Thank you so much," Northam said.

Pam Northam encouraged them to run for office themselves someday.

--The Eastern Shore. Many guests were from the governor's hometown. They talked about people and places there.

Sarah Bazemore ran up to give Northam a hug.

She's a former patient of the doctor and still keeps in touch.

"He's had a big impact on my life," said Bazemore, of Suffolk. "He solved all my (health) problems and he means so much to me. He's governor now, but still Dr. Northam to me."

A framed family photo of the Northams, taken when their son Wes graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School, rested on an end table in the next room.

Seven hundred and eighty-eight days after he announced his candidacy, the Northams were home.