RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe painted an upbeat picture of Virginia’s economy and political climate in a major speech as the General Assembly reconvened Wednesday while also making a last-ditch effort to save his Supreme Court pick and threatening to use his veto pen in defense of liberal causes.
In a nearly hour-long State of the State Address, McAuliffe (D) zigged and zagged between the two seemingly incongruent roles he has alternately played since assuming his first elective office two years ago: bipartisan fence-mender and Democratic stalwart.
McAuliffe urged Democrats and Republicans to put partisanship aside for the good of the commonwealth. He spent much of the speech touting goals with broad bipartisan appeal, such as economic development, K-12 and higher education, and veterans services, sprinkling in the names of Republicans who have worked with him in those areas.
“If we work together over the next 60 days, we can expand economic opportunity to Virginians in every corner of the commonwealth and from every walk of life,” he said. “And we can show the world yet again that here in Virginia, we do not back down from a challenge. We do not let petty partisan squabbles stand in the way of progress our families deserve.”
At the same time, McAuliffe threatened to veto any bills that seek to loosen controls on guns or restrict rights to abortion and gay marriage. He renewed his pitch to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. And he zinged the GOP for spreading “misleading information” about his plan to begin charging tolls on some lanes of Interstate 66 inside the Beltway.
Perhaps most pointedly, McAuliffe put Republicans on the spot by imploring them not to unseat Supreme Court Justice Jane Marum Roush. McAuliffe had used a recess appointment in the summer to install Roush, a highly regarded former circuit court judge from the Washington area. Republicans, upset that McAuliffe did not consult them on the choice, intend to remove her.
“Allowing politics to deny this qualified and distinguished jurist a full 12-year term would send a dangerous message about this commonwealth’s respect for the independence of the judicial branch,” he said in his remarks to the chamber soon after the judge entered, to applause from the Democrats’ corner.
McAuliffe’s speech to lawmakers, in the ornate House chamber, capped the opening day of the 60-day session, which will set the course for state spending over the next two years. The session will be a critical one for McAuliffe, who at the halfway point of his term is trying to wrangle a legislative legacy out of a Republican-controlled House and Senate. His proposed $109 billion state budget, which includes $1 billion in new spending for K-12 and higher education, will be central to his efforts.
Republicans shared McAuliffe’s optimism that they could find common ground in some areas but balked at certain goals, including expanding Medicaid and saving Roush.
Howell said McAuliffe’s speech was full of “pomp and circumstance” and exaggerated the state’s economic recovery.
“I don’t feel the economy is booming, as he insists it is,” Howell told reporters. “We still have a very fragile situation in Virginia. There’s a lot of people living on the edge, a lot of people unemployed.”
House Majority Leader Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) reiterated McAuliffe’s view that he can work with Republicans on veterans’ care centers and K-12 education funding.
“I think the last part of the speech was disturbing, especially sort of the real hard-nosed, ‘I’ll veto, I’ll veto, I’ll veto,’ and that probably tainted a lot of the speech for us. But having said that, I do think there are a lot of areas where we can work together.”
McAuliffe’s speech went over well with Democrats.
“I think the governor made a compelling case for all of us, on both sides of the aisle, to spend the next 59 days focusing on areas of bipartisan agreement and working together to move the commonwealth forward,” said Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax). “The campaigns are over, the results are in: The GOP has the votes to kill any bill they don’t like, the governor has enough votes to sustain a veto of any bill he doesn’t like. So let’s work on the things we both like.”
The session comes as Virginia’s 2017 governor’s race is already well underway. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who appeared at a morning news conference with abortion-rights activists, is the Democrats’ only declared candidate. Republican political strategist Ed Gillespie, who is seeking the Republican nomination, stopped by the Capitol to visit Republican lawmakers.
The General Assembly session began with all the usual pomp — and one highly unusual circumstance. One minute before the House gaveled in, it closed out a special session that had been left to linger since summer — a move aimed at preventing McAuliffe from giving Roush a second recess appointment. McAuliffe did it anyway, and Roush has continued to serve on the bench. But Republicans expect to unseat her by appointing someone else to the slot as early as next week.
The 40 senators and 100 delegates, gathering in the white-columned building that Thomas Jefferson designed, were meeting for the first time since last fall’s fiercely contested and highly expensive elections. The contests left the two parties just about where they started off: Republicans held on to their slim majority in the Senate and their commanding sway in the House. Every incumbent senator and delegate was reelected.
The Senate convened shortly after noon with seven new members — two Democrats and five Republicans. The new members were sworn in en masse on the Senate floor and then recognized individually as their relatives watched. The GOP has a 21-19 majority in that chamber, just as it did last year.
The House has 11 freshmen — four Republicans and seven Democrats. The GOP boasts an overwhelming 66-34 majority in that chamber, but with one fewer Republican than last year, it lacks the numbers to override McAuliffe’s vetoes.
In a nod to transparency, newly reelected Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) made permanent a 48-hour waiting period before voting on the final budget bill. He also did away with the practice of holding impromptu committee meetings at members’ desks as an “important signal to the public that we are committed to openness.”
But in the Senate, reporters were ousted from the floor by Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City), who tangled bitterly with the media last year over news reports about his affair with a Richmond lobbyist.
Two large tables for the media, normally placed just below the dais, were removed before the Senate gaveled in, and reporters were sent to the Senate gallery. Norment also proposed removing language allowing reporters on the floor — a change that was approved, over Democrats’ objections, as part of a broader package of mostly arcane Senate operational rules.
Asked about the new rules, Norment first coyly feigned ignorance: “What new rules?” When pressed, he indicated that he had nothing to say to reporters on that or any other matter.
“As you will find probably through the session, I have no comment.”
Norment’s move drew criticism from Northam, who as lieutenant governor presides over the chamber but learned only an hour before the session began that the tables had been removed.
“We’re looking for more transparency here as we make policy,” Northam said, “not less.”