In his final speech as the state’s leader, Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday night that he is leaving behind a state that better serves Virginians, is slated for continued economic success and is more welcoming to a broader swath of people.
“It has been a more tumultuous four years than I think any of us expected,” Northam said in his address at the Capitol before lawmakers and other state leaders. “But the challenges have also been opportunities.”
Northam’s at-times chaotic term — marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, a scandal over a racist photo and Democrats’ rise and fall from power — will come to an end Saturday. The Democrat from the Eastern Shore will be succeeded by Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, a Republican from Northern Virginia.
Republicans reacted swiftly to Northam's address. New House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, issued his own response on Twitter that contrasted with his party's formal - and more muted - response.
"Ralph Northam is leaving office as his own lost cause, condescendingly lecturing us all from some assumed moral high ground because he read the book 'Roots' and then went on a non-stop reconciliation tour," Gilbert said, referring to the Alex Haley novel about American slavery and its aftermath. "Saturday can’t come fast enough."
Northam’s address was fashioned as a celebration of his term and the successes of his administration. Northam appeared triumphant as he described the state’s higher-than-expected revenues; its honors for being a business-friendly state; and improvements to infrastructure and broadband over the past four years. His valedictory address came as spiking COVID cases continue to put a strain on the state’s hospitals.
Northam said Virginia has managed to become attractive to businesses even as it raised the minimum wage and weathered a once-in-a-generation pandemic.
“A state that’s both good for business and good for workers doesn’t happen by accident” Northam said, citing CNBC’s designation of Virginia as the best state for business in 2019 and in 2021.
In the formal Republican response to Northam’s speech, two GOP lawmakers said that the “decisive results of November’s elections,” which saw Republicans sweep the statewide offices and take control of the House of Delegates, “signaled that Virginians wanted to move in a different direction.”
Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and Del. Tara Durant, R-Stafford, criticized criminal justice policies they said have made Virginia less safe, and the closure of schools during the pandemic.
They said challenges at the state’s unemployment benefits agency, within the mental health system and even the standstill on Interstate 95 last week gave Virginians “every right to question the competence of state government.”
Northam, whose tenure nearly ended following the February 2019 disclosure of a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page, didn’t directly reference the scandal during his address. Northam alluded to it, saying the experience was educational for himself and for other white people in the state, and brought about a greater focus on racial equity.
“I know that talking about history — our real, true history — can make some people uncomfortable. Mostly those people who look like me. And I have not always understood the ways that the uglier parts of our past affect things and people today,” Northam said.
He highlighted investments to protect Black cemeteries and his addition of a chief diversity officer to Virginia’s Cabinet.
Northam also said the state’s criminal justice system better “reflects the Virginia we are today,” thanks to moves by his administration to do away with policies that “have their roots in a more discriminatory and unfair past.”
Northam noted the legalization of marijuana and the abolishment of the death penalty in Virginia. He said Virginians could also have a chance to automatically restore voting rights for people who have completed felony sentences if the General Assembly approves a constitutional amendment on the issue.
One of the early successes of Northam’s administration was a bipartisan effort to expand Medicaid access. Northam says that the 2018 expansion came at an auspicious time given the pandemic that would unfold in early 2020.
Northam mourned the losses of nearly 16,000 Virginians who died after being infected with the virus, offering a moment of silence for them and their families.
As for the pandemic, Northam here too said there are signs for optimism: nearly 90% of Virginia adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The state’s total vaccination rate is just under 70%.
As his successor heads into office highly critical of the state of education in Virginia, Northam countered Wednesday that Virginia’s system is “second to none.”
Northam praised the expansion of state-funded early childhood education in Virginia, and investments in K-12, including pay raises for teachers.
Northam also marked a fulfilled campaign promise on education: the creation of a free community college program for low- and middle-income students who are seeking degrees in high-demand fields.
In the GOP response, Durant, who defeated Del. Joshua Cole, D-Stafford, in November, said Republicans in the legislature will respond with policy to Virginians’ concerns. She said Republicans will focus on high academic standards in K-12 schools, curbing crime with stricter criminal justice policies, cutting taxes and protecting customers from higher utility bills. (The state has projected increases to electricity bills from a law Democrats passed to bring more clean energy to Virginia.)
Northam urged the state’s leaders to “embrace clean energy,” pointing to erratic weather changes in Virginia and elsewhere as a sign that climate change is an imminent crisis.
Northam will promptly go back to practicing medicine. In his speech, he reflected back to his time in pediatrics as the inspiration for his time in public office, recalling a desperate dad who feared he couldn’t afford his son’s medical bills, and a family who lost a toddler in a gun accident.
Northam urged Virginians and the state’s new leader to focus more on “helping other people” — the motto he says drove his time in office.
“Are we going to keep up this progress? Or will we retreat, become people who are more worried about ourselves than each other?”