Terry McAuliffe seeks to set a bipartisan tone on first workday as Virginia governor

During one of his first major speeches as governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe outlined his goals for the state during his time in office. (Virginia General Assembly)

Gov. Terry McAuliffe promised fiscal discipline but also a continued push for Medicaid expansion in a speech that capped his first full business day on the job Monday, seeking to strike a bipartisan tone in a divided Capitol.

Appearing before a joint session of the House and Senate two days after he was sworn in as Virginia’s 72nd governor, McAuliffe (D) used his speech to continue the balancing act he will have to pull off to get anything through a GOP-dominated House and a Senate where control is in flux.

Much of his speech stressed his commitment to expanding and diversifying the state’s economy. He announced two already hatched economic development deals and vowed to preserve the state’s sterling bond rating, all easy sells to Republicans.

Yet he also hit upon priorities popular with his liberal base. In addition to expanding Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, McAuliffe voiced support for gay rights and abortion rights as well as the Dream Act, particularly its provision to allow the children of some illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

“As we launch this new chapter in our history, let us resolve to show the partisans in Washington and across the nation that here in Virginia, in a commonwealth that pioneered government by consensus, there is no challenge too great, no debate too intractable and no idea too ambitious that we cannot come together on common ground to build the future our families deserve,” McAuliffe said.

The governor also announced goals of preserving 400,000 acres of farmland and open space, expanding broadband service to rural communities and taking partisan politics out of the redistricting process.

House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) was put off by McAuliffe’s calling for action on Medicaid this session.

“I was disturbed by that,” Cox said. “He threw down the gauntlet.”

The speech was the highest-profile moment of a day that began for McAuliffe at 4 a.m. — with the jolt of an alarm clock set as a prank by his predecessor, former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), who also positioned a taxidermy bear to greet McAuliffe in the governor’s office bathroom.

McAuliffe went on from there to hold his first Cabinet meeting at 9 a.m.

“He said, ‘Thank you for the great work on the transition,’ and then it was basically on to business,”said spokesman Brian Coy. Going around the conference table, each Cabinet secretary discussed whatever was on his or her front burner.

The Cabinet meeting took place in the conference room in McAuliffe’s ceremonial offices in the third floor of the Capitol. The new governor bounced throughout the day between that office and his other office, on the third floor of the Patrick Henry Building, a short walk away on Capitol Square.

About a half-hour before the General Assembly gaveled into session, McAuliffe stopped in at the Capitol to visit with Republican and Democratic legislators in their closed-door caucus meetings. His entrance prompted applause on both sides of the aisle.

He also spent part of the day preparing for the speech, which he used to announce that Carnival cruises would return next year to Norfolk. He also announced that Telos, a cybersecurity company, will invest $5 million in its Loudoun County operations, creating 160 high-tech jobs. And he revealed that he had directed his transportation secretary to develop a plan to revise the tolling schedule for the Midtown Tunnel Project in Hampton Roads.

After delivering the speech in the Capitol, McAuliffe was scheduled to host a reception in the Executive Mansion for all 140 legislators.

Also in the Capitol Monday, Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D) gaveled the Senate into session for the first time since his swearing-in on Saturday. A pediatric neurologist from the Eastern Shore, Northam shook the hands of blue-blazered Senate pages on his way up the carpeted steps to the rostrum.

Legislators had red fleece blankets on their desks when they reported to the chambers Monday, each emblazoned with an image of the Capitol and the words “Inauguration of Virginia’s 72nd governor Terry McAuliffe.”

“Is this a trap?” joked Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), referring to the new attention on gift-giving to state officials in the wake of a gifts scandal that consumed McDonnell’s last year in office.

McAuliffe has imposed a $100 limit on gifts to members of the executive branch, and legislators are widely expected to impose limits on themselves before the session is up.

“Please tell me this is not valued at more than $100,” said Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Louisa), who promptly gave his blanket away to a Senate page.

Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) also got to work in an office filled with books. Two books sat apart from the others: a Bible and a copy of McAuliffe’s autobiography, “What a Party!”

It was an autographed copy, inscribed by McAuliffe to Ken Cuccinelli II (R), who just left the office of attorney general after losing the governor’s race to McAuliffe. Cuccinelli was apparently willing to part with the book. He also left Herring a note in his desk.

“Mark, Good luck!” Cuccinelli wrote. “If I can ever be of service, please don’t hesitate to call! Ken C II.”

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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