Democrats flexed their new majorities in both chambers, with women and people of color occupying more seats and positions of leadership than ever in the Assembly's 401 years. Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) was unanimously elected speaker of the House, becoming the first woman and first person of the Jewish faith to hold that role.
The Senate named Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) as president pro tempore, making her the first woman and first African American to hold that chamber's second-highest office.
Flush with last fall's election victories that gave Democrats consolidated power, Northam urged the legislature to overturn a quarter-century of Republican dominance on issues such as guns, abortion and voting access.
"We serve the people, and they have been clear: They expect us to face Virginia's modern challenges and to lead the way forward," he said.
Northam's list of policy goals was exhaustive for a legislative session of only 60 days. He called for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; criminal-justice reform, including decriminalization of marijuana; increasing the minimum wage; making community college tuition-free for low- and moderate-income residents; big spending on environmental programs and early-childhood education; and more.
He also urged Virginians to resist efforts to whip up hysteria about the topic of gun control. "Let's have an honest conversation based on fact, not fear," he said.
Republicans have derided the governor's proposed $135 billion, two-year spending plan as larded with giveaways. In their prepared response to Northam's address, Republicans took credit for building up Virginia's economy and raised concern that the Democratic call for change would be disruptive.
"Bills have been filed that would undo 50 years of Virginia labor law," Del. Roxann L. Robinson (R-Chesterfield) said, according to an advance copy of the response. "It is our sincere hope that Democrats will continue the policies that have served Virginia well for the past two decades."
There was no mention of the blackface scandal that nearly caused Northam to resign in February and over which Republicans have criticized him for months. Polls indicate Virginians have largely forgiven Northam for the incident, which he alluded to only vaguely in his address.
"Every night, when I go to bed, I ask myself, How well did I do today?" he said. "How well did I serve Virginia? And when I'm down — and yes, I'm human, too — I search for new ways to carry out my responsibilities. Believe me, I've found some over the past year."
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus were particularly eager to signal that they are looking ahead and not back at the scandal.
“It is our time,” state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) proclaimed as she stood with other caucus members to outline legislative priorities, which mesh neatly with Northam’s. With an all-time high of 23 members — one-sixth of the entire legislature — the caucus will wield unprecedented influence.
Overall, the House swore in 18 new members Wednesday, the Senate five. After years in the minority in both chambers, Democrats hold a 55-to-45 majority in the House, 21-to-19 in the Senate.
Among the new members were the state’s first two Indian American lawmakers and its first Muslim senator. Both chambers gaveled in with record numbers of women, who now make up about 30 percent of the legislature — 29 in the 100-member House and 11 in the 40-seat Senate.
Most of the women are Democrats, although their numbers grew in both parties. In the House, 25 of the women are Democrats, and four are Republicans; in the Senate, seven are Democrats, with four Republicans. Women make up 45 percent of the Democratic Caucus in the House and 33 percent in Senate.
What promises to be a busy session began relatively quietly, with lawmakers holding news conferences and lobbyists finding their way around to new offices.
The first burst of activity focused on the Equal Rights Amendment, as dozens of activists favoring passage rallied outside the entrance to the Capitol, cheering wildly as legislators friendly to their cause walked by.
“Get it done!” and “Women’s rights, human rights!” they chanted.
The conservative Family Foundation and other opponents said ratifying the ERA would be a setback for women, erasing distinctions on sports teams and in locker rooms, bathrooms and the military. “Things may have changed around here, but we still have a voice,” said Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Bedford).
Virginia would be the 38th — and arguably final — state to ratify the amendment, which prohibits sex-based discrimination. But the deadline to enact the amendment passed years ago, and the U.S. Justice Department released an opinion Wednesday that the process must begin anew for the amendment to take effect.
Republican leaders were adjusting to the loss of power — smaller offices, fewer staffers. Former speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) walked alone through the legislative office building, just another delegate now.
“We are still relevant,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said in an interview with reporters. “And we are still here and fighting for our beliefs. And we think that very quickly the voters of Virginia will begin to get buyer’s remorse about what they’ve done here.”
Partisanship took a break as GOP delegates applauded Filler-Corn when she became speaker, and then again when Suzette Denslow became the first woman in Virginia history to serve as clerk of the House.
Moments later, though, Gilbert rose and began a series of parliamentary challenges. Pointing out that Democrats failed to present new rules to govern the conduct of the session, Gilbert suggested that no other group of leaders “has ever similarly not been ready to go on opening day.”
“This day is unprecedented,” responded Del. Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), the first woman and first African American to serve as House minority leader.
Privately, several House Democrats said the delay in issuing rules was partly to avoid confronting a volatile issue on opening day: whether to allow guns onto Capitol grounds.
Passing some form of gun control is a priority for Northam and the new Democratic leadership. The prospect has whipped up a furor among gun rights advocates, with some national groups promising to send thousands of armed protesters to Richmond later this month.
On Wednesday, several groups of gun-control supporters gathered at the Capitol, many wearing the red shirts of Moms Demand Action. Security was tighter than usual in the evening, with a heavy presence of state police that one official said was in response to threats against Northam and legislators over plans to pass gun restrictions.
Filler-Corn has signaled that she intends to curtail old rules that allow guns to be carried in and around the Capitol as a security measure.
Gilbert scoffed at the prospect.
“A sign on the fence saying ‘no guns’ is not going to stop someone who has evil intentions. The only thing that would stop them is someone with the right to defend themselves,” he said.
In the Senate, regional and partisan tensions flared late in the day as Democrats presented their plan for committee assignments. Republicans complained that southwestern Virginia and Virginia Beach had no representation on two key committees, while Northern Virginia was overrepresented.
“No room for one region, but there was room enough for supermajority power for another region,” said Sen. A. Benton Chafin Jr. (R-Russell). “I don’t think that’s what our Founding Fathers had in mind about a representative democracy.”
Senators otherwise united against a common foe: their counterparts in the House of Delegates. The two chambers spent hours locked in a parliamentary conflict over how many people to send over to the governor to formally notify him that the General Assembly was in session.
The standoff lasted until shortly before Northam’s speech. Had the two sides not finally reached agreement, Northam would have had to deliver his address from his office.