RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) cast Virginia as an oasis of civility in a toxic national political climate Wednesday, urging Republicans to put aside differences and work with him on building a stronger economy as he kicked off the 2017 General Assembly session.
A nostalgic-sounding McAuliffe glossed over conflicts that have marred his three years in office, reciting a long list of accomplishments and touting favorite talking points about economic development. As he enters his final session, prevented by the state constitution from serving a second consecutive term, McAuliffe reached for common ground in presenting a modest slate of priorities.
“For the past three years, our work together has seen far more bipartisan victories than divisive battles,” he said in an advance copy of his prepared remarks. “While political fights rage in Washington, we have proven again and again that Virginia is a place where leaders still work together to get things done.”
Even so, he threatened to veto any legislation that would restrict the rights of gay and transgender Virginians, and administered a few mild partisan jabs. He noted, for instance, that his executive order to restore voting rights to felons met with both applause from fellow Democrats and a lawsuit from Republicans.
Otherwise, his priorities of improving the state’s mental health services, addressing the opiate addiction crisis, generating jobs and making up for a $1.2 billion budget shortfall with minimal pain are in broad alignment with Republican goals.
After the speech, Republican legislators agreed that there is room to cooperate but criticized McAuliffe’s social-policy jabs. “If you’re going to basically say let’s stick to [uncontroversial] issues . . . don’t spend the last 15 minutes . . . on hot-button issues,” said Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), the House majority leader.
Two legislators who delivered the Republican response to the governor’s speech steered clear of hot-button topics, except for a reference to rooting out welfare fraud. They stuck to bread-and-butter issues such as regulatory relief for businesses, raises for state police and sheriff’s deputies, improving education and addressing the opioid crisis.
“We believe Virginians have had enough of partisan squabbles,” said Del. Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach), who delivered the GOP response along with Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico). “The common-sense priorities we have set for this session are conservative, but they are also intended to garner widespread support from both parties.”
McAuliffe’s “State of the Commonwealth” speech capped a long day of convening and agenda-setting that had started 12 hours earlier at a prayer breakfast, at which the governor also spoke.
The 46-day session kicks off a big political year in Virginia, which will choose a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in November. It also gives McAuliffe his last chance to wrangle a legislative legacy out of the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Shortly before the Assembly convened at noon, McAuliffe made the rounds to Republican and Democratic caucus meetings. As he dropped into the gathering of House Republicans, a roar went up inside the closed-door meeting, followed by a couple more as the governor made his quick, upbeat visit.
“Everybody was jacked up, fired up,” McAuliffe said as he emerged. He said he had told the group that his legislation has had 72 percent success with the legislature, and urged them to “help me get my numbers up this year.”
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) arrived at the caucus just as McAuliffe was leaving, and the two joked with one another in the hallway. McAuliffe warned that his state of the commonwealth speech would be 46 minutes, apart from applause.
“You know, you can’t see it, but I’m making faces behind you the whole time,” said Howell, who sits on the dais behind the governor during the speech.
Inside the Senate caucus room, Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) presented McAuliffe with a lapel pin in the shape of the number 21. It was a reference to the GOP’s 21-19 majority in the chamber, reaffirmed in two special Senate elections just the night before.
The session convened just nine days before President-elect Donald Trump is due to take office. A sense that the new administration could greatly shake up Washington — and federal funding to states — was on the mind of Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Hanger suggested forming a committee to “monitor what’s going on in Washington” for anything the state would need to respond to. He also raised the possibility that legislators might need to return for a special session later in the year to revamp the budget if it loses federal funds.
“It’s not unthinkable that once we leave here, we may have to return,” he said.
Races for statewide offices also loomed over the day. Two of the six contenders for governor — Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who presides over the Senate — serve in the legislature. So do all three GOP candidates for lieutenant governor: Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (Virginia Beach) and state Sens. Bryce E. Reeves (Spotsylvania) and Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier).
Their work here could bring them added attention but also tie them down in Richmond. Under state law, they are prohibited from fundraising until the session gavels out. Rivals who are not part of the legislature were preparing to make the most of the next month and a half.
GOP gubernatorial contender Ed Gillespie plans to launch a five-day, statewide tour starting Saturday. He announced Wednesday afternoon that he raised $1.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2016 and $2.8 million to date — far more than what the last two GOP gubernatorial candidates had raised at the same point in their campaigns four and eight years ago.
Denver Riggleman, the owner of a craft distillery, jumped into the race for the party’s nomination just two days before the session started. And at the very moment that the House and Senate gaveled into session, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Corey A. Stewart was scheduled to give away an AR-15 rifle to a supporter in Woodbridge as part of a fundraiser.
Former congressman Tom Perriello, a Democrat who just entered the race for governor last week, will spend the next few weeks formally hiring staff and finding office space, introducing himself to voters with an upcoming listening tour and catching up on fundraising with a focus on online appeals to small donors, a campaign spokeswoman said.
Perriello’s campaign — now run out of the former congressman’s Alexandria home — is playing catch-up with Northam, who reported having $1.4 million on hand as of June 30, the most recent filing available.