RICHMOND, Va. -- For the final time, the pediatric neurologist from Virginia’s Eastern Shore strolled in the Capitol to address Virginians directly. Governor Ralph Northam’s (D) final state of the Commonwealth speech looked back on his time in office and set out a hopeful message for what comes next.
Wednesday, in front of the joint assembly of legislators, Northam spent more than an hour addressing the multiple crises during his term and the administration’s response, sending a rosy tone for what his administration accomplished.
Republicans were critical of Northam’s term and countered with their own vision with control of two out of three levers of state government.
“Everything we have built and accomplished over these four years has been about helping people,” Northam said.
The address comes just days before Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) takes office and will deliver a similar joint address Monday.
“Next Monday, Governor-elect Youngkin will speak to you in just the same way. By then, he will be Governor. I wish him the best and I’m confident he will lead this Commonwealth well. When he succeeds, Virginia succeeds,” Northam said.
Since taking office in 2018, Northam faced the COVID-19 pandemic, social justice protests, and a scandal that nearly forced him out of office.
Wednesday, Northam noted an early notch in his belt that he said had ripple effects to now. During his first year in office, Northam struck a deal with Republicans, who controlled both chambers of the General Assembly at the time, to expand Medicaid coverage to Virginians with low-income.
“We couldn’t foresee the pandemic, but I am glad that when a global health crisis arrived, more than 600,000 Virginians had access to care that they did not have in 2018,” Northam said.
Northam’s term will be defined, in part, by the COVID-19 pandemic. Several facets of his administration’s response to the pandemic has been met with criticism, but Wednesday, Northam noted Virginia’s vaccination rate is higher and overall case numbers lower than most larger states in the U.S.
“As I leave office, I hope that our Commonwealth will continue doing what we know works: follow the science. Get vaccinated. Wear masks. Take care of other people, not just ourselves. That is who I know Virginians to be,” he said.
In 2019, Northam faced calls to resign after a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page surfaced. Northam pledged to center the remainder of his term on healing and supporting efforts to rectify racial inequities. Northam praised the work of his administration in “telling untold stories” and supporting diversity within state government.
“I know that talking about history — our real, true history — can make some people uncomfortable. Mostly those people 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. “But I kept my mind open. I listened, and I learned. I used to tell students, the eyes can’t see what the brain doesn’t know. I know that Virginians want to understand each other.”
During Northam’s remarks, Republicans cheered for certain aspects of the address but mostly sat silently.
Following the address, new House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) tweeted 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.”
A Northam spokesperson called the comments “sad.”
In the official GOP response, Republicans said voters delivered a message during November’s elections that Virginians were looking for something different than what Northam and Democrats delivered.
“The decisive results of November’s elections, with Glenn Youngkin, Winsome Sears, and Jason Miyares prevailing, signaled that Virginians wanted to move in a different direction,” said Sen. Todd Pillion (R-Washington).
The agenda presented by Republicans in the legislature tied closely to Youngkin’s promises during the campaign: items like eliminating the grocery tax, doubling the standard deduction, bolstering standards in public schools, and backing law enforcement.
“We’re introducing legislation that will keep dangerous, violent killers behind bars and off the streets, and that will bring accountability and change to our badly broken Parole Board,” said Del. Tara A. Durant (R-Stafford).
Fights for another day and administration, as Governor Northam left Virginians with his thanks and these thoughts.
“I hope the spirit of helping other people continues to prevail. I hope we’ll continue to be people who want to serve the world, rather than conquer it. People who sow kindness and hope, rather than anger and fear,” Northam said. “We all are here for a short period of time, and every day is a God-given opportunity to help someone, to make their life better.”
The inauguration of Governor-elect Youngkin, Lt. Governor-elect Winsome Sears, and Attorney General Jason Miyares, all Republicans, is set for Saturday shortly after noon.