RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam is a modest guy. But he answers to “your excellency” now and had all the pomp and circumstance Saturday to prove it.
As the folksy children’s doctor and Army veteran morphed into the 73rd governor of Virginia, three Black Hawk helicopters swooped overhead. Some 1,500 Virginia Military cadets marched by as did an army of Appalachian fiddlers and a world champion oyster shucker in a sparkly tiara.
There was even an official beer created for the occasion: InaugurALE, a Belgian-style blonde ale brewed, with 100 percent state-sourced ingredients, by the Center of the Universe Brewing Company based in Ashland.
Perhaps nothing announced Northam’s arrival better than the fire-engine red 1953 Oldsmobile parked in front of the 200-year-old governor’s mansion. Northam has been lovingly restoring the car since high school and featured it in a campaign ad, promising to restore vocational training.
More than 4,000 well-wishers braved near-freezing temperatures to watch Northam, decked out in a formal morning suit with tails, take the oath of office on the state Capitol’s South Portico. Veterans of other inaugurations knew it could have been worse.
“Ours was record cold,” said former governor George Allen (R), who took the oath in 1994 in 20 degrees — 5 degrees if you factor in wind chill. “Some of the bands couldn’t play because they were worried about their instruments sticking to their lips.”
To Democratic activists thrilled to see the Executive Mansion stay blue, the weather was a small price to pay.
“I campaigned in the cold and the rain so why not come to the inauguration,” said Miranda Lewis, a Richmond Democratic activist.
Richard Stewart of Petersburg, 74, bought a top hat for the occasion.
“We wanted to make it special,” he said.
Another spectator skipped out on her own awards ceremony to attend. The Human Rights Campaign held a breakfast earlier that morning to honor E.J. Scott, vice president of the Prince William NAACP. She left early to pile into her car with three friends and rush to Richmond.
They had prime seats right in front of the inauguration stage but arrived too late to be seated. Even so, she was content to sit off to the side and watch the action on a big screen.
“There’s a big Jumbotron over there,” she said. “We were still part of it.”
Because one ceremony is not enough in this tradition-steeped commonwealth, the day began with a smaller one involving outgoing governor Terry McAuliffe (D) and Northam and just a few onlookers.
McAuliffe officially handed over the key to the Executive Mansion to Northam around 11:50 a.m.
McAuliffe used the occasion to let Northam know he was leaving something behind: two chickens in the coop established by first lady Dorothy McAuliffe. Northam said he grew up raising chickens on the Eastern Shore, so he’ll feel “right at home.”
“Hopefully we’ll have some fresh eggs,” Northam said.
In keeping with Virginia tradition, McAuliffe and his wife slipped out of the ceremony shortly after Northam took the oath and before he gave his inaugural address, exchanging a few handshakes and hugs with legislators as they made their exit.
But he did not cede the whole day to his successor.
Before the ceremony, McAuliffe rolled out yet one more economic development announcement. With less than 90 minutes left in his four-year term, McAuliffe announced that a plastic packaging company would invest $6.7 million to expand a plant in Campbell County, in the southwest part of the state. Jobs created: eight.
McAuliffe has made luring economic development the centerpiece of his four years in office, and often joked that he would be working until the last minute to land new investment. Saturday’s deal brought the total investment attracted to Virginia during his term to $20.05 billion, he said.
During the parade, Northam periodically saluted Virginia Military Institute cadets as they marched by. He is only the second VMI graduate to become Virginia governor, exactly 100 years after the first, Democrat Westmoreland Davis.
The cadets paused before Northam long enough for him to take his first official act as governor: Pardoning any cadets facing minor infractions. The governor is commander in chief of VMI.
The cadets, in their formal gray uniforms, mostly looked straight ahead. But some peeked at him out of the corner of their eyes.
Less restrained was a woman marching with the organization that provides service dogs to veterans.
“We voted for you!” she shouted. Northam mouthed back, “Thank you.”
The swearing-in and parade were intended to underscore themes of inclusiveness.
Muslim Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts led the Pledge of Allegiance. Native Americans in feathers performed a prayer ceremony. Bolivian dancers in bright costumes sashayed past the dignitaries, followed by a nationally ranked wheelchair basketball team from Charlottesville.
Also marching was Virginia’s fastest oyster shucker, 65-year-old Deborah Pratt, in a nod to Northam’s roots on the Eastern Shore. He is only the second Virginia governor from that region. The other was Henry A. Wise, who served from 1856 to 1860, a virulent secessionist who signed John Brown’s death warrant on his way out of office.
After the parade, Northam retreated inside the Capitol to sign three executive orders. The first prohibits discrimination in state employment because of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion, age and political affiliation. The second enumerates the powers and responsibilities to his chief of staff, Clark Mercer. The third empowers Mercer to declare a state of emergency.
The newly minted governor, fingers still numb from his swearing in, struggled for a moment to get the first ceremonial pen out of its box.
After the first signature, he gave the pen as a keepsake to James Parrish of Equality Virginia. Mercer stepped up to accept the second with his 4-year-old daughter, Cecilia, on his arm. She snapped up that pen.
“I’ll keep this pen,” Northam said after signing the last.
After that, Northam and first lady Pam Northam welcomed the public at an open house at the Executive Mansion. If all the hoopla had gone to Northam’s head, there was no sign of it as he greeted visitor after visitor.
“Hi, I’m Ralph,” he’d say as they came in from the cold. “Nice to see you. This is my wife, Pam.”