Shortly before 12:30 p.m. Saturday, under a leaden sky, Ralph Northam swore his oath as governor in a soft Eastern Shore patois, installed by Virginians as a quiet counterweight to their noisy politics.
In his 20-minute inaugural address — as he did during the months-long campaign — Northam drew a sharp contrast between himself and President Donald Trump, whose broad unpopularity in Virginia fueled a second consecutive Democratic statewide sweep and nearly eliminated a seemingly indomitable Republican majority in the House of Delegates.
“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 and when scoring political points gets in the way of dealing with real problems,” said Northam, a 58-year-old pediatric neurologist whose political style is more bedside manner than pithy soundbite.
“If you’ve felt that way, I want you to listen to me right now: We are bigger than this. We all have a moral compass deep in our hearts. And it’s time to summon it again, because we have a lot of work to do.”
Since the start of the two-party era in Virginia in the late 1960s, governors have occasionally used inaugural addresses to make a deliberate break with the past, setting a fresh course and relying on a different style.
In 1970, Linwood Holton, on becoming Virginia’s first Republican governor of the 20th century, implored the state to move beyond the racial tension that had shaped its politics, to judge its citizens — black and white — on their character and ability. Holton, now 94 and largely estranged from the GOP, was among 10 former governors attending the Northam inaugural.
Twenty-four years later, another Republican governor, George Allen, delivered a contentious address in which he depicted the Democrats then controlling the legislature as obstacles to low taxes, light regulation and small government, all of which had traditionally been articles of faith in both political parties.
Northam’s message was calm in tone and purposeful in substance, embracing the tenets of his voluble predecessor, fellow Democrat Terry McAuliffe, but signaling that he’ll go about things differently, a presumed allusion to the conciliatory approach he preferred during nearly two terms as a state senator from Norfolk and four years as lieutenant governor.
“You don’t have to be loud to lead,” said Northam, in a line inspired by his wife Pam’s description of him.
Northam underscored the initial objectives of his administration: to break the four-year partisan deadlock over an expansion of health care, curb street violence by toughening gun laws, ensure abortion and equal rights, and expand to the Republican countryside the prosperity rooted in the Democratic suburbs.
But momentum from the election — Northam defeated Ed Gillespie by nearly 9 percentage points — and the diminished Republican advantage in the General Assembly do not guarantee success for Virginia’s 73rd governor. Indeed, House Republicans, while initially obliging of the fortified Democratic minority, are striking a potentially defiant stance.
In an ominous turn on the eve of Northam’s swearing-in, Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, sent nearly a dozen prized Democratic bills to the House Rules Committee, of which he is chairman. The GOP-dominated panel is the House’s procedural traffic cop, deciding how and where bills should be managed and whether they should die.
Northam made only elliptical references to some of the more divisive issues of the 2017 campaign, including whether Confederate statues should be taken down as racially offensive. Northam, descended from slave owners and Confederate soldiers, had vowed to advocate for moving Confederate monuments to museum settings, though he signaled that he struggles with the matter.
Noting that Richmond was a seat of the American Revolution and giant slave market, Northam said Saturday: “Our history is complex in Virginia. It includes good things, and bad. But no other place on earth can claim it. This unique heritage endows us with a responsibility to shape the future — to leave this place better than we found it.
“That is the Virginia way.”