RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spent the first official workday of his governorship Monday watching gun-control bills he backed get killed off by former colleagues and friends in the state Senate.
Two days after Northam (D) assumed office with warm wishes from both sides of the aisle, the limits of bipartisan bonhomie were on display in a Capitol narrowly controlled by Republicans. Many GOP legislators genuinely admire Northam, a former state senator and lieutenant governor, but they still intend to flex their muscle at times.
First thing Monday morning,
a Republican-controlled Senate committee rejected a slew of Democratic bills intended to curb gun violence, including one that called for universal background checks for firearm purchases.
Hours later, Northam sounded as though he were back on the campaign trail as he addressed hundreds of gun-control activists rallying in the bitter cold on Capitol Square.
"I served during Desert Storm," said Northam, a former Army doctor. "I saw firsthand what weapons of war do to human beings. We do not need them on the streets."
Despite the losses before the Senate committee, Northam urged the activists not to give up hope for universal background checks and the restoration of the state's one-per-month cap on gun purchases. Similar bills were still alive in the House of Delegates.
"I will continue to provide hope not only to you standing out here today, but to all Virginians, to all Americans," he said, sporting a yellow "Background Checks Save Lives" sticker on his dark overcoat. "Unless there is no air in our lungs, we will continue to fight for responsible gun ownership across the commonwealth of Virginia."
In the evening, Northam addressed a joint assembly of the House and Senate, laying out an agenda that mixes hot-button Democratic goals, such as rolling back abortion restrictions and expanding Medicaid, with workforce development and other initiatives with wide bipartisan appeal.
He was greeted with an extended standing ovation. Northam's delivery of his 50-minute speech was mostly low-key, but he shifted into animated stump-speech mode when it came to guns.
"As long as Virginians' lives are at risk because there are too many guns in the hands of people who would use them to harm others, we will fight on this ground," he said. "As long as schools, churches, offices and concert venues are exposed to horrific, preventable violence, we will fight on this ground. As long as the people who sent us all here continue to cry out for solutions to the epidemic of gun violence, we will fight on this ground."
Even as he noted the "disappointing" Senate committee votes on gun control, Northam's overarching message was the need for both parties to unite to tackle the state's problems. "Virginians are counting on us to answer big challenges with big solutions, even if that requires us to put the common good ahead of our own partisan interests," he said.
Afterward, Republicans said they were disappointed by what they considered a campaign-style tone. "We felt like a lot of the issues highlighted tonight were partisan, to say the least," said House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights).
In the House, Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) opened the day's session with a call for cooperation. "We in Virginia can be a shining example for the rest of the nation on how to find common ground," said Gilbert, citing several issues that both parties have flagged as priorities: improving public education and making college more affordable, addressing the opioid crisis, and caring for veterans.
Democrats have already begun to grumble, however, that the Republicans are pushing the limits of their razor-thin majority. In particular, Cox has drawn fire for taking the unusual step of assigning high-profile legislation to the Rules Committee, which is controlled by the speaker himself.
In recent years, that committee has mainly been procedural. But Cox, who was elected unanimously last week and promised to cooperate across the aisle, has shifted several high-priority Democratic bills to the Rules Committee, including measures aimed at prohibiting the use of campaign funds for personal expenses, increasing the dollar threshold for what constitutes a felony larceny and giving localities the power to set minimum wage.
All other House committees have proportional party representation, meaning Democrats are numerous enough to influence which bills pass through to the full House. But while Cox added two Democrats to the Rules Committee in a gesture to the new balance of power, he kept a sharp Republican majority of 11 to 6.
That has led Democrats to fear that he is stockpiling their bills in the Rules Committee to kill them.
Cox said Monday that is not the case. "I've been very deliberate about saying that one of the goals I really want to have as speaker is . . . have a lot of policy come out of the speaker's office," he said. The committee features senior members from both sides of the aisle, he said, and in other places it has been used as a "steering committee" that exerts influence over the flow of legislation.
Cox said he knew there have been "some reports that that maneuver is just to kill legislation — that's not true." He added that he will consult with Democratic leadership on "a lot of these measures." Cox pointed out that significant Republican-sponsored bills have also been assigned to the Rules Committee, such as a bill creating a cabinet-level office for coastal protection and flooding adaptation and one creating a work requirement for Medicaid.
"It allows you, in some instances, to organize things correctly and . . . bring some clarity to various categories of bills," he said.
Del. David Toscano (Charlottesville), the House Democratic leader, said he is concerned about Cox's effort.
"I can embrace the notion that senior leadership from both parties ought to be able to work together to develop bipartisan legislation, and I'm hoping that's what will happen," Toscano said. "But it is a little strange, and we'll have to see whether they'll live up to what they're saying about bipartisanship."