Speaking in a mostly empty House of Delegates Chamber on Wednesday night, Governor Ralph Northam delivered an optimistic State of the Commonwealth address. In the live-streamed speech, Northam acknowledged the suffering caused by COVID-19 and an economic downturn, but highlighted stories of heroic Virginians from the past year. He touted the progress Virginia’s government made towards progressive goals in 2020, and called for more change.
“I want you to know that my heart is filled with optimism and hope when I think about this. Because while we have just come through a tough year that brought everyone pain and sacrifice, I’ve seen something remarkable. Over and over again, I have seen you taking care of one another,” Northam said.
Northam praised the way Virginian heroes responded to recent crises, mentioning healthcare workers, UPS drivers, teachers, the National Guard, and law enforcement officers.
He listed legislative victories from 2020 including gun control, clean energy legislation, raising the minimum wage, criminal justice reform, banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, and repealing racist language from the law.
“These actions were about living out our values. Virginia is a large and diverse state that welcomes everyone, and we took action to demonstrate that,” Northam said.
Even though COVID-19 turned the lives of Virginians upside-down, Northam said the new vaccines are bringing Virginia back to normal.
“The vaccines are our way out of this pandemic,” Northam said. “The vaccines, and continuing to follow the guidelines on masks, distancing, and hand washing. Tonight, Virginia, I urge you to get vaccinated when your turn comes. I will do it, and so will my family. ”
2021 Policy Goals
Northam previewed his hopes for the 2021 legislative session, and listed some of his budget priorities including better public health funding, affordable housing, expanding broadband access, and improving education.
He called for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights for felons. He also called for legalizing marijuana and ending the death penalty.
Northam said, “Here’s another truth: a person is more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death when the victim is white, than when the victim is Black.”
Northam celebrated that Virginia has begun removing memorials and monuments to the Confederacy in Virginia. “For 150 years, the Confederate insurrection against the United States has been celebrated in Virginia,” he said. “We started changing that last year—ending holidays that celebrate Confederate leaders, giving cities and counties the right to remove monuments, and changing the way that Virginia represents itself in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.”
Northam called for that to continue, and specifically called to remove a monument to Governor Harry Byrd, who opposed desegregation.
“Virginia also continues to celebrate a man who worked against integration—Democrat Harry Byrd, the architect of Massive Resistance, which closed public schools to children like Barbara Johns,” Northam said. “It’s time to stop this celebration too, and remove this monument from Capitol Square.”
Northam warned against those who wanted government only to serve their own interests, saying they don’t care about democracy. He reacted to the riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“A mob of domestic terrorists stormed our nation’s capital. They were egged on by conspiracy theories and lies from a president who could not accept losing,” Northam said. “Tonight I say to every elected official in Virginia, you can be part of our democratic institutions, or you can use falsehoods to try to destroy them, but you can’t do both. Words have consequences. Inflammatory rhetoric is dangerous. This is not a game.”
In a joint release representing both the Virginia House and Virginia Senate Republican Caucuses, gubernatorial candidate Delegate Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Senator John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake) responded to the Governor. Although the legislators were optimistic about the COVID-19 vaccine, they criticized Northam for the slow rollout. Their response to Northam’s address painted a picture of a struggling Virginia, blaming Northam and General Assembly Democrats for the problems.
“In 2020, Governor Northam and the Democrat-majority in the General Assembly abandoned the policies that made Virginia a national leader. They enacted nearly $2 billion in new taxes. They implemented an energy scheme that will cost families hundreds of dollars more every year. And, they imposed new onerous regulations on our businesses struggling to survive,” Cox said.
Cosgrove expressed alarm at recent criminal justice reforms, and warned of more reforms to come. “As we enter the 2021 session, Virginia is no longer the national leader we had been for so long.” he said.
Gubernatorial candidate Sergio de la Peña also published a response to Northam’s address. “Governor Northam’s Socialist ideas take Virginia the wrong way,” he said.
Northam ended his speech on an inspirational note. “We have learned a lot in this past year, but the main thing is that we are all connected. What I do affects you, and what you do affects me.”
“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. And I am proud of you, Virginia. You have made this the greatest state in the greatest nation in the world,” Northam said. “So now, let’s get to work!”
Watch the full address:
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