The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A divided Virginia General Assembly meets, with outgoing governor cautioning against ‘hyper-partisanship’

Virginia House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), front right, takes the oath of office along with other delegates during opening ceremonies in the House chambers at the Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 12, 2021. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) urged the General Assembly to embrace a spirit of community and inclusiveness Wednesday night as he delivered his final State of the Commonwealth address.

Acknowledging the ups and downs of his four years in office — which veered from a blackface scandal to the passage of historic legislation such as abolishing the death penalty — Northam made a case for his legacy and cautioned lawmakers against giving in to hyper-partisanship.

“It has been a more tumultuous four years than I think any of us expected,” Northam said to a joint session of the House of Delegates and state Senate. “But the challenges have also been opportunities.”

The General Assembly had convened at noon with new leadership in the House, where Republicans reclaimed the majority after last fall’s elections, and with Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin preparing to be sworn in Saturday. The House swore in 19 new members.

The state Senate remains under Democratic control, meaning compromise and negotiation are going to be integral to getting anything done.

House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who’d assumed the speakership earlier in the day with bipartisan well wishes, lashed out at Northam on Twitter for remarks the outgoing governor made about the state’s — and his own — reckoning with racial history.

“Ralph Northam is leaving office as his own lost cause, condescendingly lecturing us all from some assumed moral high ground because he read the book ‘Roots’ and then went on a non-stop reconciliation tour,” Gilbert tweeted. “Saturday can’t come fast enough.”

Gilbert’s tweet caught some off guard.

“That comment is undignified and a horrible foot to set off on as he begins his speakership,” said Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria). “Virginians don’t deserve petty, small-minded leaders. I would have hoped Speaker Gilbert would try and be a statesman for at least his first full day as speaker.”

In their formal response to the speech, Republicans suggested that Northam had failed the state in ways ranging from extended pandemic-related school closures that kept many children out of classrooms for more than a year to an epic traffic jam last week that left motorists locked on an icy Interstate 95 for more than a day.

“When assistance for the unemployed doesn’t get to the unemployed, when mental health services are limited by staffing shortages, when the DMV won’t open its doors regularly and when drivers on an interstate highway are stranded for 24 hours, Virginians have every right to question the competence of state government,” Sen. Todd E. Pillion (R-Washington) said in a video along with Del. Tara A. Durant (Stafford).

Unlike last year, when the coronavirus pandemic forced most lawmakers to watch Northam’s annual speech via teleconference, the governor on Wednesday spoke before a packed House chamber — with about half the crowd wearing face coverings.

‘A wounded healer’: Ralph Northam wraps up term in office, forged by scandal into a governor of lasting consequence

Northam began with a lengthy call for compassion, citing examples from his practice as a pediatric neurologist to illustrate the need to help the less fortunate. He then rattled off a litany of accomplishments he said have made Virginia better, from investing in education and workforce training to expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, abolishing the death penalty and legalizing marijuana. He said many of these policies had been good for business.

“We are leaving in your hands a strong and healthy commonwealth, one that treats everyone right, takes care of people when they need it and provides opportunity for everyone to thrive,” Northam said, a line that drew a standing ovation from Democrats.

Democrats also stood and applauded when Northam said that health care is a right, not a privilege. They rose again — and Republicans stayed seated — when Northam noted the dangers of embracing former president Donald Trump’s false claim that Democrats stole the 2020 election.

Youngkin refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of President Biden’s win until after securing the GOP nomination last year and continued to play to Trump’s base by vowing to restore “election integrity."

“It does tremendous, tremendous damage when elected officials use false claims to undermine faith in our elections,” Northam said without naming anyone. "Voters deserve better, and our elected officials need to do better, and not perpetuate anyone’s big lie.

The governor also spoke about confronting Virginia’s racist past and learning from his own shortcomings. A year into his term, Northam nearly resigned when a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page came to light.

“I know that talking about history — our real, true history — can make some people uncomfortable. Mostly those people who look like me,” Northam said. “And I have not always understood the ways that the uglier parts of our past affect things and people today.”

He said working to better understand painful lessons of the past had informed policy efforts in areas from education to criminal justice, health care and expanding access to the vote.

“Are we going to keep up this progress?” he said near the end of his speech. “Or will we retreat, become people who are more worried about ourselves than each other? I hope we will not. I hope the spirit of helping other people continues to prevail.”

But Northam’s effort at inspirational rhetoric ran up against newly resurgent Republicans, who came to town with messages of their own.

House Republicans began the day by acknowledging the need to work with Democrats, but also promising aggressive efforts to undo what they see as the other party’s misguided lawmaking from the past two years.

“We are acutely aware of the fact that we have a divided government situation here,” Gilbert said at a news conference before the session convened. “That doesn’t mean we won’t be boldly pushing forth ideas — we will.”

This year the GOP holds a 52-to-48 edge in the House of Delegates, after a Democrat won a special election to fill an open seat in Norfolk on Tuesday. The state Senate remains in Democratic hands, at 21 to 19.

Shortly after the House convened, Gilbert was elected speaker on a unanimous vote.

“I submit that there’s no one better qualified than Todd Gilbert to lead this body,” Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle) said in making the nomination.

As is tradition, the speaker’s nomination was seconded by a member of the other party — in this case, Del. Kathleen J. Murphy (D-Fairfax), who also happens to be a longtime and unlikely friend of Gilbert’s.

“While we do not agree politically, for the most part, it is my honor to second his nomination,” Murphy said.

Gilbert, a lawyer and former prosecutor who was first elected to the House in 2005, said becoming speaker was “the honor of my life.”

“I do not take this lightly, and I pledge to you that I will give the utmost to be the speaker for all of Virginia and all of this chamber,” Gilbert said.

Glenn Youngkin’s about to take office as Virginia’s next governor. Here’s everything you need to know.

He and new Republican House committee leaders set out a specific agenda that included passing tax cuts, funding charter schools, slashing business regulations, giving raises to law enforcement, tightening up changes to criminal laws that Republicans said put dangerous people back on the streets and requiring police resource officers in every school.

“We have the ability in the House Republicans to make real and lasting impact,” said House Majority Leader Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), who pledged to work with Youngkin on his goal of withdrawing Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a compact among mostly East Coast states to trade credits for carbon emissions.

Del. Glenn R. Davis (R-Virginia Beach), who will chair the Education Committee, spoke in favor of funding more charter schools and prohibiting the teaching of any curriculum “compelling students to adopt the belief that any race is inferior to another.” That was a reference to critical race theory, an academic theory about teaching the history of racism that is not on Virginia’s public school curriculum but that Republicans ran against in last year’s elections.

Del. Barry D. Knight (R-Virginia Beach), who will chair the Appropriations Committee, said Republicans plan to seek $300 rebates for each individual taxpayer and a doubling of the state’s standard deduction.

In the state Senate, the last vestige of blue on Capitol Square, the Senate Democratic Caucus rolled out its agenda for the session with an emphasis on “kitchen table” issues.

“Virginia Senate Democrats’ goal is to make every Virginian’s life easier, safer and more prosperous,” Sen. Mamie E. Locke (Hampton), the caucus chairwoman, said in virtual news conference Wednesday morning. “And we have always fought for these ideals and will never settle for less.”

As Republicans take over Virginia House of Delegates, outgoing Democratic speaker promises to defend record

Affordable child care, transportation, improvements to the state’s beleaguered Employment Commission and paid family medical leave were among the issues they vowed to push through during the session.

Senate Democrats also said they were highly skeptical of Youngkin’s nomination of Andrew Wheeler, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency chief, for secretary of natural resources.

Once the session began, senators voted 39 to 0 for rules that would allow any members who are sick with or exposed to the coronavirus to participate remotely. Shortly thereafter, the 40th member, Sen. Mark J. Peake (R-Lynchburg), began participating remotely.

Masks were encouraged but not required in the Senate or House. But the Senate, which lost a member to the coronavirus last year, had some physical barriers in place meant to curb the spread of the virus, which in recent days has sent the state’s hospitalizations soaring to record highs.

Three-sided plastic booths around the senators’ wooden desks, which were in place last summer during a special session, drew the ire Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham), who called them “cages” and warned they could actually harm health by inhibiting air circulation.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) contended the dividers were needed, noting that none of the Republicans were wearing masks.

For the first time since the advent of the pandemic, senators and delegates had their usual army of teenage pages on hand to pass out documents, run errands and otherwise help floor and committee sessions run smoothly. They paired their classic blue blazers with dark masks.