Looking back at a chaotic year and at further hardship ahead, Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday sought to encourage hope and resiliency among Virginians, vowing to lead the state out of difficulty in his last year in office.
Northam delivered his annual State of the Commonwealth address before a nearly empty House chamber that in other times would have been filled to the brim for an occasion of pomp and ceremony.
Instead, lawmakers watched virtually to guard against COVID-19, and law enforcement closely monitored the building amid national tensions over the results of the presidential election. Northam’s remarks came just hours after the U.S. House voted to impeach President Donald Trump for a second time.
Northam paid somber tribute to the 5,000 Virginians who have died as a result of the coronavirus — including Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell — and to the two law enforcement officers who died after a violent group of insurrectionists overtook the U.S. Capitol.
“We’ve all experienced loss this year,” Northam said, adding of Chafin: “He was my friend, and I miss him.” He then led a moment of silence.
Still, Northam’s speech about the state of affairs here focused much more on the light: Virginians have begun to receive vaccines against the coronavirus, and while the rollout has left much to be desired, Northam on Wednesday vowed to continue pushing for speed.
He said the state will quickly follow federal guidance to immediately begin vaccinating people over the age of 65. Across the state, Northam vowed to match the speed of vaccinations to the supply of 110,000 doses per week.
“We’ll be moving forward with that quickly — I’ll be talking to local health directors and hospitals tomorrow about how we make this happen,” Northam said on vaccines for the elderly. “I’m counting on the people who work in our public health departments to push hard to get this done.”
In the official Republican response, Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, a former speaker of the House who is running for governor, said the administration’s vaccine distribution has been “extremely disappointing,” adding that the state has fallen behind most others in the share of vaccines distributed that it has given.
Cox also said Virginians have faced significant delays while seeking unemployment benefits.
“Virginia has to do better,” he said.
Northam sought to assure Virginians that smart financial decisions at the state level would help keep them afloat, including by increasing the number of business loans and funding for evictions and mortgage relief.
The governor reiterated his administration’s proposal to boost the evictions relief trust fund by $25 million and to direct revenues from the state’s “gray machines” — gambling consoles inside restaurants and gas stations — to the state’s small-business relief fund.
Northam also unveiled positive news for the state’s teachers: He expects that revised revenue projections released Wednesday will turn 2% bonuses for teachers in his budget proposal into permanent raises.
“We need to make this teacher bonus a raise, and make it more than 2%,” he said.
The governor also vowed to fight for additional funding for localities’ health care needs, early education programs, college financial aid and broadband expansion.
It was Northam’s second such address since Democrats captured majorities in the legislature, an electoral victory that has drastically changed Virginia’s landscape. He appeared jubilant as he described his administration’s legislative goals.
Among his goals is to pass measures he believes will address the racial and socioeconomic disparities present in the state — a topic that became a key focus of his administration after the 2019 scandal over a racist yearbook photo nearly cut short his time in office.
Among those proposals is a plan to legalize marijuana, a plan Northam says will bring hefty revenues to the state while ending the disparate criminalization of people of color for marijuana-related offenses.
Northam also highlighted efforts to reimagine Richmond’s Monument Avenue, which was home for more than a century to statues of Confederate leaders. It now mostly includes just their pedestals — aside from the remaining state-owned statue of Robert E. Lee. He also praised the state’s removal of a statue of Lee from the U.S. Capitol and the plans to replace it with one of teenage civil rights pioneer Barbara Johns.
“We are moving past the burden of our history, taking action to shape a Virginia that reflects who we are and what we value,” Northam said.
Notably, he made no mention of the monthslong protests over systemic racism that took place in Richmond last year.
Northam promised to deliver on criminal justice reform, backing automatic expungements for people who commit certain crimes and automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who have “paid their debt to society.” He is also backing ending the death penalty in Virginia.
Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, joined Cox in the formal response and criticized Democratic proposals to expand parole and to end minimum mandatory sentences.
“Placing the interests of violent criminals above those of innocent citizens who are the victims of crime isn’t just wrong, it’s unconscionable. It is evidence of an administration with misplaced priorities and misguided values,” he said.
Near the end of his remarks, Northam addressed the breaching of the U.S. Capitol after weeks of unsubstantiated claims by Trump that he, not President-elect Joe Biden, had won the November election.
“They were egged on by conspiracy theories and lies from a president who could not accept losing,” Northam said. “Inflammatory rhetoric is dangerous.”
He ended by encouraging unity across Virginia as the state and the world grapple with the COVID-19 crisis.
“We are one Virginia, and we need to keep taking care of each other,” Northam said. “I am proud of the state of our commonwealth, and the foundation we have built to get through this pandemic and recover in a way that is equitable and fair.”