RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) used a Cabinet meeting Wednesday to showcase all he expects to get done with a state government under Democratic control for the first time in a generation.
“Virginia spoke and we’re going to listen and we’re going to take action,” said Northam, who is halfway through is four-year term.
For nearly an hour, Northam called on various Cabinet secretaries to talk about their agendas for the Democratic legislature that will convene in January. They offered plans that included tightening gun laws and expanding prekindergarten programs, with Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne putting in a plug for maintaining the state’s practice of living within its means.
For the most part, it was a sober-minded rejoinder to the image Republicans have tried to paint of the coming takeover by “radical” Democrats, if not “socialists.” But there were still flashes of excitement. Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, was the most effusive.
“Wow,” he said, referring to the election results, when the governor called on him. “Thank you. Congratulations. It’s very exciting. We’re all going to be very busy, but in a very good way.”
Northam later met with reporters, where he answered questions about the state’s future direction but ducked others.
Regarding gun control, he referred to eight “common-sense” bills he proposed for the special legislative session he convened in July, in the aftermath of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach on May 31. Republicans who controlled the General Assembly shut down that session after 90 minutes — sending all of the bills to the crime commission and promising to reconvene after the election.
Northam mentioned universal background checks, banning the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, restoring the law that limits purchases to one gun a month, and a red flag law that would empower a court to temporarily remove a gun from a person deemed to be a risk to himself or others.
“We will at least start with those,” he said.
Voters had flagged gun control as the top issue of this fall’s election, according to a recent Washington Post-Schar School survey.
Asked whether he supports confiscating assault weapons from gun owners, Northam demurred.
“That’s something I’m working [on] with our secretary of public safety,” he said. “I’ll work with the gun violence activists, and we’ll work [on] that. I don’t have a definitive plan today.”
Northam said the legislature will take up the federal Equal Rights Amendment. If it passes, it would make Virginia the 38th and last state needed for ratification.
“It is a top priority,” Northam said about the ERA. “It’s one of those things that — a lot of those pieces of legislation — if we get it to the floor and let people vote, then it will become law.”
Regarding Confederate monuments, Northam said he’d support giving localities the authority to remove them. A 1904 state law bars the removal or alteration of public war memorials in Virginia. In Charlottesville, Confederate-heritage enthusiasts have relied on the preservation law to stop officials there from taking down two Confederate statues.
“My thoughts are, the localities are in the best position to make those decisions,” Northam said.
Since they will control both the legislature and the governor’s mansion, it will be up to Democrats to redraw boundaries for state legislative and congressional districts after the 2020 Census. Democrats benefited on Tuesday from a federal court decision earlier this year that ordered the state to redraw dozens of district maps because 11 had been racially gerrymandered. Several of those districts became more favorable to Democrats.
Northam said he wanted to moved away from gerrymandering. “I’ve got great relationships with people on both sides of the aisle. … I’m looking forward to working with the Democratic leadership and … anybody else who wants to work with us,” he said.
Northam was evasive when asked if he would like to repeal the state’s right-to-work law, which prohibits a requirement that private-sector workers join a labor union. Repealing that law would allow employers to require union participation as a condition of employment.
Asked whether he would consider a repeal, he said: “That’s a hypothetical question. I deal with what’s put on my desk. But what I would say is that, while we’re the Number One state in the country in which to do business, I want to do everything that I can to support our workers as well.” He mentioned raising the minimum wage — he could not be pinned down on a dollar amount he’d find reasonable — and bolstering workforce training.
Asked whether he would support allowing teachers or other public-sector workers to unionize, Northam said: “Again, you’re asking hypotheticals, and if something like that gets to my desk, I’ll certainly look at it.”
Some Democrats to the left of Northam were out and about Wednesday, promising to enact a list of policies, including universal health care and a green new deal. Asked whether he is concerned that Democrats might overreach and alienate centrists they need to hold power, Northam said, “A lot of plans are being talked about at the national level in two- and three-word phrases and the devil’s in the details.”
When a reporter referred to the commonwealth as “a pretty purple state,” Northam was quick to correct him.
“This is a blue state,” he said. “I made that announcement last night. … So Virginia’s blue. I want everybody to know that.”