RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who rode a wave of voter unhappiness with President Donald Trump to electoral victory, took the oath of office Saturday with a pledge to make politics less toxic and more productive.
Speaking to a crowd gathered in dreary, cold weather on the south portico of the state Capitol, Northam took veiled shots at the president while promising to govern with a "moral compass."
"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," Northam said. "We are bigger than this."
The folksy doctor with a low-key charm easily won Virginia's closely watched governor's race in November, powered in large part by a surge of voters unhappy with the Trump administration. Democrats swept all three statewide offices and made major gains in the state House in a possible preview of this year's mid-term elections.
Northam drew heavily from his background in his inaugural address, invoking his childhood on Virginia's rural Eastern Shore and his time as a student at Virginia Military Institute. Northam said the tradition-bound military academy with a strict honor code continues to help guide his actions.
Northam also said he'd been trained as a doctor — he served as an Army doctor before becoming a pediatric neurologist in private practice — to offer a sympathetic ear. He said he'll bring the same approach as governor.
"Virginians didn't send us here to be Democrats or Republicans — they sent us here to solve problems," Northam said, as several former governors, members of the state's congressional delegation and state lawmakers listened on.
Northam also pledged to govern in the mold of his immediate predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who made economic development a key focus of his term. Virginia is the only state where governors cannot serve consecutive four-year terms.
Northam, who has kept many of McAuliffe's staff in senior positions, has pledged to push for many of his predecessor's priorities, including expanding Medicaid and enacting stricter gun laws.
A former state senator and lieutenant governor with strong relationships with key lawmakers, Northam will still likely face a tough path pushing those priorities through the General Assembly. Republicans hold a slim majority in both chambers.
The state's 73rd governor faces a host of others challenges. Virginia's economy continues a tepid growth in the wake of the Great Recession and the state's budget faces long-term strains in education and health care. And the economic, political and cultural divides within the state appear to be growing, particularly between its rural and urban areas.
An example: a keenly felt split in the state over what to do with its numerous Confederate monuments and statues, which Northam has said he'd like to see moved to museums.
Chris and Dionne Perdieu, from Altavista, came to watch their son march with fellow VMI students in the inaugural parade. Chris Perdieu said he didn't vote for Northam, and both expressed concern that he would push to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson at VMI.
"It's part of the heritage of VMI," Dionne Perdieu said.
Northam has previously said he will let the school make its own decision about the statue, which he and other students used to salute daily.
Also on Saturday, attorney Justin Fairfax was sworn-in as lieutenant governor. Attorney General Mark Herring, who won re-election, was also sworn in.
A parade including participants from across the state began just after the ceremony concluded.
Members of the Virginia National Guard led the procession, which rolled by the Capitol as Northam looked on. Also marching was the Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets, The Crooked Road Fiddle Army from southwest Virginia and gay rights group Equality Virginia.
Shortly after the parade, Northam, who has pledged to make Virginia more welcoming, signed an order outlawing discrimination in the state workforce as his first official act.