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Taking office as state's 73rd governor, Northam asks Virginians to follow 'moral compass'

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Ralph Shearer Northam was sworn into office Saturday as Virginia’s 73rd governor, calling from the steps of the state Capitol for Virginians to find their “moral compass” to take on the state’s challenges.

Northam, a Democrat, took the oath of office on a chilly day as the Bell Tower tolled 12:30 p.m., putting the 58-year-old, even-keeled doctor from Norfolk at the helm of state government for the next four years. As spectators sipped apple cider to stay warm and the national anthem played, Northam smiled and mouthed one word: “Wow.”

In his 20-minute inaugural speech, Northam recalled his time spent on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay while growing up on the Eastern Shore and his father’s advice to trust his compass if “things get dark or foggy.” Northam said he began following a “different kind of compass” through the honor code of the Virginia Military Institute, his alma mater, where cadets are sworn to never “lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do.”

“Virginia and this country need that more than ever these days. It can be hard to find our way in a time when there’s so much shouting, when nasty, shallow tweets take the place of honest debate, and when scoring political points gets in the way of dealing with real problems,” Northam said.

“If you’ve felt that way, I want you to listen to me right now. We are bigger than this. We all have a moral compass deep in our hearts. And it’s time to summon it again, because we have a lot of work to do.”

Northam, who defeated Republican Ed Gillespie in last year’s election by a surprisingly wide margin, was accompanied by his wife, Pam, son Wes and daughter Aubrey as he took the oath.

With members of the General Assembly listening in the audience, Northam called for reducing gun violence by enacting universal background checks on gun sales, protecting a woman’s “constitutional right to make her own decisions about her health” and taking steps to improve the state’s “uneven” economic picture.

Chief among the tasks ahead, Northam said, is Medicaid expansion, the long-sought but unrealized policy objective for Virginia Democrats that would provide health coverage to an estimated 400,000 low-income Virginians.

“We’re going in the wrong direction on health care in Virginia and America,” Northam said. “More people need coverage, not less. It is past time for us to step forward together and expand Medicaid to nearly 400,000 Virginians who need access to care."

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who followed the tradition of slipping out of the crowd after Northam became governor, tried for years to persuade the Republican-controlled General Assembly to pass Medicaid expansion, but he never got it through the legislature. But along with Northam’s victory in November, Democrats flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates, bringing new hope that Northam, who served in the state Senate before becoming lieutenant governor in 2014, might achieve what McAuliffe never did.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly have said they still oppose Medicaid expansion, but they have also said they believe Northam’s legislative experience and low-key demeanor will enable the two parties to work together.

“He’s obviously a person that I think wants to work with you. He’s willing to do things behind the scenes,” new House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said Wednesday as the 60-day legislative session began. “We really feel like, personalitywise, he matches up pretty well with us.”

Northam said the “humble and steady service” of his father, an elected commonwealth’s attorney who later became a judge, and his mother, a nurse and teacher, taught him “what strength looks like.”

“It taught me that you don’t have to be loud to lead,” Northam said.

Before Northam’s swearing-in, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring was sworn in for a second term. And attorney Justin Fairfax was sworn in as lieutenant governor, becoming just the second African-American elected to statewide office in Virginia’s history. The first, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, was on hand to witness the occasion.

Northam pointed to Richmond, and the contradictory histories of Church Hill and Shockoe Bottom, to invoke Virginia’s “complex” story.

“In a church on a hill 15 blocks from here, Virginia’s first elected governor helped launch the American Revolution when he cried, ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’ ” Northam said, referring to Patrick Henry’s famous speech at St. John’s Episcopal Church. “But at the bottom of that same hill, one of the country’s largest slave-trading markets was coming to life. A place where Virginians would sell men, women and children for profit.”

Though the state’s history includes “good things and bad,” Northam said, “no other place on earth can claim it.”

“This unique heritage endows us with a responsibility to shape the future — to leave this place better than we found it,” Northam said. “That’s the Virginia way.”

After watching a dance by Native American tribes to bless his new administration and a parade that featured the VMI Corps of Cadets and the James Madison University marching band, Northam retreated into the Capitol for his first official acts: signing three routine executive orders.

The inaugural ceremony was held on the South Portico of the 230-year-old Capitol building, but the transition of power was evident everywhere on Capitol Square.

Northam is a classic-car hobbyist who learned to rebuild engines in high school. His prized 1953 Oldsmobile was parked outside the Executive Mansion.

Before the swearing-in, McAuliffe handed off the keys to the mansion during a brief ceremony inside the Capitol. McAuliffe, who installed the first ever backyard coop at the mansion, also told Northam that he left behind a few chickens.

“I’ll feel right at home,” Northam said in a brief interview. “Hopefully we’ll have some fresh eggs.”

After the key handoff, the two men were wanted across the hall for the traditional photograph with past governors, but McAuliffe noticed that Northam was lingering behind.

“C’mon Ralph!,” McAuliffe said. “He’s already late.”

All 11 living Virginia governors were present, including Northam, who had not yet been sworn in.

The senior-most statesman, former Gov. Linwood Holton, now 94, was accompanied by his daughter, Anne, who served as education secretary under McAuliffe, and her husband, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a former governor. Kaine, a Democrat, talked amiably with former Gov. George Allen, a conservative Republican governor who also served a term in the U.S. Senate. Kaine defeated Allen in his bid to return to the Senate in 2012.

Wilder, who became the country’s first elected black governor on a frigid day in 1990, joked with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., another former governor who later moved to the Senate.

“I’m so proud of the way he represents America,” Wilder said of Warner, who has assumed a prominent public role as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Warner appeared taken back by the praise from Wilder, who is known for his willingness to take on fellow Democrats, including Chuck Robb, yet another former governor-turned-U.S. senator who spoke warmly with his sometimes adversary.

Former Govs. Jerry Baliles, Jim Gilmore and Bob McDonnell also mingled together before the ceremony.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who served in McAuliffe’s Cabinet for more than two years, was greeted by raucous applause when his presence was announced on the House floor as the two legislative chambers convened as part of the day’s formalities.

Stoney, who helped recruit Northam to run for the state Senate, said he is optimistic about having a governor from Norfolk who “understands cities.”

“He understands the needs of our urban areas,” Stoney said, adding that he hopes he can work with Northam to tweak the state’s education funding formula to better serve Richmond’s struggling schools.

During his inaugural address, Northam seemed to speak directly to the plight of children in urban school systems.

“Tomorrow can be better for the children who are sitting in crowded and crumbling schools across this state, tired and distracted from too little food and too much violence in their communities,” Northam said.

Closing out his speech, Northam told a personal story about a time he felt he had failed the family of a boy with severe autism by saying, accurately, that there was nothing he could do to improve the boy’s condition. Years later, the boy’s mother approached Northam in the grocery store and told him why they hadn’t returned to Northam for a follow-up visit.

“I can still hear her words to this day. When I told her that I was unable to help her son, I diagnosed the problem correctly,” Northam said. “But I missed the opportunity to provide the one thing her family still needed the most: And that was hope.”

Since that encounter, Northam said, he has sought to keep the “incredible power of hope” alive in everyone he serves.

“Hope is not just a source of comfort for the afflicted,” Northam said. “It is a wellspring of energy to fight for a better tomorrow, no matter the odds.”

gmoomaw@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6839

Twitter: @gmoomaw

Staff writer Michael Martz contributed to this report.

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