Gov. Ralph Northam used his first speech to the General Assembly to seek common ground with Republicans on work force training, education and economic development, but he also forcefully called for expansion of the state’s Medicaid program as “a matter of basic economic justice” and challenged them on hot-button Democratic political priorities.
Northam reminded lawmakers assembled in the House of Delegates chamber Monday night that the General Assembly was transformed by an election in November that not only swept him, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring into office, but also turned the GOP’s once impregnable 32-seat majority in the House into a two-vote advantage.
“We all recognize the extraordinary changes that voters made to his assembly in November,” he told the 140 legislators. “They expect us to deliver on the mandate they sent.”
Foremost, he said, that means expanding Medicaid with federal funds under the Affordable Care Act, which he called “the best way for us to make life better for Virginians and truly open a new era of policy making in the commonwealth of Virginia. Let’s get it done this year.”
Republicans reacted with surprise and disappointment at what they heard as a highly partisan call to arms from someone they had regarded as a potential ally.
“That was the worst partisan speech I’ve ever heard!” exclaimed House Appropriations Vice-Chairman Steve Landes, R-Augusta, as he left the chamber.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and other Republican leaders also voiced their dismay in an impromptu news conference in the Capitol Rotunda.
“We were disappointed by the tone of the speech,” Cox said, citing his own effort to establish a bipartisan spirit in a chamber with a 51-49 Republican majority.
Republican leaders said they remain concerned about the rising costs of Virginia’s current Medicaid program, which they say is crowding out public education and other budget priorities, but they again stopped short of declaring, as they have in previous years, that it won’t happen.
Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said Republicans have found other ways to broaden health care access for the most vulnerable Virginians – people with severe mental illness and addiction to opioids, for example.
“There will be more people covered in March than when we arrived,” he said.
But Jones also was dismayed by Northam’s speech, which he said wasn’t consistent with the conversations he’s had with the new governor about addressing the state’s problems.
“I was disappointed with the tone,” he said.
Initially, many Republicans joined with Democrats in the standing ovations that are ritual in such addresses, but they kept their seats as Northam recited a long list of political priorities on issues at the heart of the partisan divide – abortion rights, gun control, expanded voting access, climate change and clean energy, and raising the threshold for felony grand larceny.
Only when the governor called for ways to protect college students from “predatory student lenders” and help them pay off their loans did Republicans rise to applaud, prompting Northam to quip, “When you’re sitting so long, it’s good to get up and stretch a little bit!”
The partisan tone may have been set earlier on Monday, as a Republican-controlled Senate committee defeated legislation to require universal background checks for firearms purchases – one of the new governor’s legislative priorities.
“That is disappointing,” Northam told the joint assembly session, “but this issue is not going away.”
As in his inaugural address Saturday, the soft-spoken doctor referred to his roots on the Eastern Shore, drawing an implicit contrast to his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, a New York native with a salesman’s boundless enthusiasm and a knack for irritating Republican leaders in a General Assembly that thwarted his repeated attempts to expand Medicaid.
“In an era of social media and cable news, in a building filled with advocates, partisans and pundits, staying on the right path can be difficult,” Northam said.
“Those of you who know me, know the Eastern Shore shaped who I am. It’s a quiet place. A place of humility. It’s a place where they teach the old lessons, the ones about loving our neighbor as ourselves,” he added.
“And it’s a place that reminds us of Virginia’s contradictions.
“For many people, this is the best place on earth to live and work,” Northam said. “But while so many Virginians share in the opportunity and prosperity of a thriving state, those benefits have eluded too many of our neighbors for too long.
“As governor,” he said, “I am committed to working with you to turn that around.”
The new governor quipped that the last time he stood at the rostrum in the well of the House he was a teenager announcing his candidacy for attorney general during the 1976 Model General Assembly.
“And I am proud to say that I won!” he said. “And, by the way, I was unopposed.”
First lady Pam Northam and their daughter, Aubrey, were on hand for the speech, in which the governor thanked not only McAuliffe and his wife, Dorothy, for their service, but also former House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford. Howell is recovering from emergency heart surgery he underwent the week before retiring after 30 years as delegate, including 15 as speaker.
Howell was the assembly’s most implacable opponent of expanding Medicaid, which Northam depicted as imperative for bringing back billions of tax dollars paid by Virginians under the federal health care law and using them to “transform the lives of nearly 400,000 people who lack coverage today.”
Northam called on his experience as a physician to make the case for Medicaid expansion and investment in medical research, which has been a shared priority of Republican and Democratic lawmakers. He put the public spotlight on Levi Bartholomew and his parents, Jennifer and Bobby, a Hampton Roads family who sat in the House gallery for the speech with Dr. Crystal Proud, the neurologist now treating the 1-year-old boy.
The family consulted with Northam when Levi was 3 months old. “He was seen, evaluated and began receiving treatment for Spinal Muscular Atrophy, Type 1, a disease that is often fatal within several months if left untreated,” the governor said. “However, thanks to the incredible progress we are making in treating diseases like Levi’s, he just celebrated his first birthday and his mother told me he recently rolled over for the first time during the Christmas holidays.”
Northam continued: “Levi’s story is a powerful reminder of the potential of modern medicine, and also the incredible value of access to health insurance and treatment.”
He added: “As a physician, I believe that expanding Medicaid is a matter of basic economic justice.”
Aside from Medicaid expansion, Northam’s biggest priority is one he shares with Republican leaders and business leaders – “creating new jobs by helping Virginia companies grow and attracting new ones to every corner of the commonwealth.”
He said the biggest challenge for state policymakers is not creating the jobs, but filling them with Virginians who have the training and skilled for a workplace transformed by new technologies.
“Too many of our fellow Virginians are out of work or underemployed because they lack the skills they need to begin a long-term career,” he said. “And too many of our businesses are struggling to fill high-paying positions because they just can’t find people with the right skills and training.”
Northam cited his appointment of Megan Healy as the state’s chief workforce adviser, a new position in the governor’s Cabinet, which includes eight women among 15 appointments.
“This Cabinet is led by women. And like this new General Assembly, it is also one of the most diverse in our history,” he said, calling on the corporate world to take notice.
“When people say, ‘we can’t find enough women, or enough diverse candidates for leadership roles,’ I say — ‘you’re not looking hard enough’.”
The official Republican response, delivered by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, and Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, sidestepped any mention of Medicaid, but promised cooperation with the governor on ways to strengthen the state economy, improve education, and fix “our broken health care system, to provide relief from spiraling costs of coverage and care for all Virginia families.”
“As a former member of the state Senate, the governor knows from personal experience how productive the General Assembly can be when we work together,” Sturtevant said. “I’m optimistic that a spirit of collaboration can and will define the months ahead.”
But Cox said that will require a different tone and less partisan focus by the governor than he displayed Monday night.
“I would like to see more attention on issues that affect people’s everyday lives,” he said.