RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday was the best day yet of his young governorship, and not just because he felt he'd gotten his relationship with Republican legislative leaders back on track.
The alarm clock that former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) had hidden in the bedroom of the mansion to torment him had finally turned up — in a linen chest, attached with double-sided tape.
"It had gone off every night at 3 in the morning," said Northam (D), who was looking forward to sleeping better at the Executive Mansion.
Northam made the remarks at a half-hour gathering with reporters at the end of his first week in office, one in which high hopes for bipartisanship had quickly dissolved into partisan anger.
On Monday, just hours into the new governor's first workday, Senate Republicans killed a raft of gun-control legislation backed by Northam. In a formal speech to the House and Senate that night, Northam angered Republicans by playing up Democratic priorities over areas of mutual agreement.
The next day, House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) met privately with the governor to complain that his tone had been too partisan.
That was a rougher start than many had expected for Northam, a soft-spoken Eastern Shore pediatrician once wooed by the GOP. In his first public comments on the flap, Northam acknowledged that his speech had "ruffled feathers."
He said Republicans might have been taken aback not so much by his words — things he had often said on the campaign trail — but by the rowdy response it drew from a newly expanded and emboldened Democratic caucus. Along with the governorship, Democrats picked up 15 seats in the House in November, bringing them to near-parity in a chamber the GOP had long dominated.
"The clapping and banging of the desktops, I think the folks to my right, the tone of it got their attention," Northam said, noting that new Democratic delegates in particular were "excited and cheering and standing up."
Asked about his meeting with Cox the next day, Northam said they quickly moved past the episode.
"Very little of the time that he came over — he started the conversation that he was disappointed, but then we started talking about, I think, a lot more constructive discussion, and we had a good talk," Northam said. "I've had a couple talks with him, and like I said, I look forward to moving forward."
Northam also said he has had productive meetings with other Republicans, including Del. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. The governor said he plans to meet weekly with leaders of the House and Republican-controlled Senate, possibly on Sunday nights.
"We certainly feel like we are moving in the right direction," said Cox spokesman Parker Slaybaugh. "The speaker does look forward to regular meetings."
Northam said he remained optimistic that he and the legislature would find a way to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act this year, predicting a deal will come together at the very end of the 60-day session.
"I think there's some common ground there," he said. "The fact that they are willing to sit down and talk about it is the important part."
Expansion could provide health care to 400,000 uninsured Virginians. Most Republicans opposed expansion under McAuliffe, expressing doubt that Washington could afford to pick up most of the state's $2 billion-a-year cost. But under Northam, some Republicans have signaled a willingness to expand health care in some form.
In the past, Democrats have sought to win Republicans over to expansion with reform-minded plans, such as running the program through private insurance. On Friday, Northam said he would seek "straight Medicaid expansion," so the state would not need a waiver from the Trump administration, which has sought to dismantle the ACA.
Northam spokesman Brian Coy later said the state could still seek waivers on a separate track.
On a more personal note, Northam said life in the 200-year-old governor's mansion has been "an adjustment" for himself and first lady Pam Northam.
"Growing up the way I grew up, I'm not used to people helping me with my meals. Nor is she," he said. "And helping with the laundry . . . But the people are just so nice and helpful, so it's all good."
Mansion life will be more comfortable without McAuliffe's alarm clock, which the departing governor left as a practical joke. Northam said he is "slowly getting rid of" the framed pictures of McAuliffe that the former governor had stashed around the mansion, four or five to a room.
And Northam is no longer sleeping on pillowcases emblazoned with McAuliffe's image.
"We've stored the pillowcases," Northam said.