RICHMOND — Just hours after trouncing Republican Ed Gillespie in a historic election widely viewed as a rebuke to President Trump, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam said he was ready to get to work and was focused on Virginia.
A physician and the state’s sitting lieutenant governor, Northam never mentioned Trump in a Wednesday appearance on Richmond’s Capitol Square. But when a reporter asked what message his victory sends to the president, the governor-elect described it as a rejection of divisive Trump-era politics.
Even so, Northam reverted to his more understated bedside manner, after calling Trump a “narcissistic maniac” at times in the campaign.
“I don’t think there’s any question that there are some policies that are coming out of Washington that are concerning to Virginians and are perhaps detrimental to Virginians,” Northam said. “But I think what this message was yesterday that Virginia sent not only to this country but to this world, is that the divisiveness, the hatred, the bigotry, the politics that is tearing this country apart, that’s not the United States that people love. It’s certainly not the commonwealth of Virginia that they love.”
The Democratic ticket appealed to voters because it focused on the economy, education and health care, Northam said. He said voters saw the Democrats as “Virginians that want to be public servants, that want to do things the ‘Virginia way. ’ ”
Northam led a Democratic sweep of statewide offices, with Attorney General Mark R. Herring winning reelection and former federal prosecutor Justin Fairfax winning the lieutenant governor’s post. Democrats also made unexpectedly large gains in the House of Delegates. Northam thanked his ticketmates, who were not present. He also called Gillespie a “good man” and promised to serve all Virginians whether they supported him or not.
“I’ve taken care of thousands of children and their families over the years,” he said. “Never once has anybody asked me whether I’m a Democrat or Republican and nor have I asked them. And that’s the way I plan to govern.”
Northam spoke in a Capitol Square office building, cheered by members of outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Cabinet and staffers. Afterward, Northam and his wife, Pam, walked next door to the Executive Mansion for lunch with McAuliffe (D) and first lady Dorothy McAuliffe.
The governor struck a more partisan note afterward, when asked if the win would put the Democratic Party back on track nationally after finger-pointing over the 2016 presidential election erupted last week between former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile and Hillary Clinton allies.
“Nationally, the Democrats, they needed a lift,” McAuliffe told reporters in the mansion foyer. “This was a rocket-boost lift. This was turbocharged. . . . This was about Virginia, but we should not understate the national importance.”
McAuliffe also was more blunt than Northam about Democratic wins in the House of Delegates, which under GOP domination successfully thwarted McAuliffe’s marquee campaign promise: expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. After Tuesday’s gains, Democrats could share power with Republicans or perhaps take control of the chamber, pending the outcome of some races that have yet to be decided.
“It’s going to be a new day over there in the House of Delegates,” McAuliffe said, describing voters as fed up with “all of their socially divisive actions.”
Northam made reference to the House gains as well, but in manner so playfully understated that it drew laughs. “As you know,” he said, “we picked up a number of seats.”
McAuliffe also said the election was a validation of his administration’s work to bolster economic development and to thwart socially conservative legislation by issuing a record number of vetoes.
“I think what you saw last night, people were happy with the direction of the commonwealth of Virginia, and they chose leadership and progress and vision over divisiveness, fear and hatred,” McAuliffe said.
With the McAuliffes and Northams huddled in the foyer, and massive bleachers already under construction outside the Capitol, the gathering had the feel of Inauguration Day, although the keys to the mansion won’t change hands until Jan. 13.
Prohibited by the state constitution from serving back-to-back terms, McAuliffe sounded wistful about leaving a job he said he probably loved “more than any governor in the history of the United States of America.”
He has no plans to fade from public life, although he declined, as usual, to comment on a potential run for president in 2020.
“I’m going to finish this job running through the tape. I hope to be announcing jobs right up till noon on Jan. 13,” he said, referring to the hour Northam is sworn in.
After leaving office, McAuliffe said he would devote himself to charitable work and to Democratic causes: redistricting and gubernatorial races. Both will require travel around the country that would be helpful for a potential presidential candidate.
“I’ll be out there,” he said.
Northam, who called McAuliffe a friend and mentor, laid out a list of priorities, starting with improving the economy in the state’s rural regions. It was a nod to struggling areas that have gone heavily red in recent elections, including Tuesday’s. He noted his plans for ensuring every corner of the state has broadband and cellphone coverage and expanding the University of Virginia’s campus in Wise County.
“We need to lift all of Virginia up,” he said, noting his own roots in the state’s rural Eastern Shore.
Northam renewed his pledge to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, an initiative that probably would have been a non-starter had the House of Delegates retained its 66-to-34 Republican majority.
Republicans have a 21-to-19 edge in the state Senate, whose members were not on the ballot this year.
Northam also said he hoped he could usher in new gun-control measures, something else the GOP-dominated House has long thwarted.
“We, as Virginians, we need to come to the table and . . . find things we can agree on and do whatever we can to try to prevent any more of these tragedies from occurring,” he said, referring to Sunday’s massacre at a Texas church.
Northam also said he would fight the opioid epidemic and discrimination, promote government efficiency and renewable energy, and ensure that all students have access to quality education.
McAuliffe was caught off guard when asked if his kegerator — the refrigerated beer dispenser he installed in the mansion — would convey to the new occupant. He purchased the kegerator himself to seal a deal with one of the many craft breweries he has lured to the state. It has become the butt of many jokes — some good-natured, some not — for the governor who doesn’t hide his taste for beer.
McAuliffe said he had not thought about it but made a decision on the spot: “I’m going to leave it for the governor-elect.”
“However, I’ll be very clear, you can see the tap handle is engraved with my name on it, and I am taking that with me,” said McAuliffe, who received the handle as a gift from staff. “You gotta get your own handle.”