RICHMOND — Terry McAuliffe was sworn in as Virginia’s 72nd governor Saturday in front of a rain-soaked crowd at the state Capitol, where he challenged a politically divided government to summon a spirit of inclusion and ensure that opportunities are equal “for all of Virginia’s children.”
McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring took their respective oaths of office in the inauguration ceremony, marking the first time in 24 years that three Democrats assumed the state’s top government offices together.
McAuliffe built his reputation as a national political operative but never held public office until he recited the oath administered Saturday by Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser of the Supreme Court of Virginia. McAuliffe was joined by his wife, Dorothy, and their five children as he was sworn in, and his longtime friends, former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, watched from a few feet away.
McAuliffe succeeded Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who followed tradition and left the inaugural platform with his wife Maureen as artillery howitzers fired a 19-gun salute to the new governor. Minutes before the ceremony, McDonnell handed McAuliffe a key to the governor’s mansion and said: “I’m honored to turn the reins over to another Irish Catholic family with five kids.”
In his inaugural address, McAuliffe commended McDonnell for providing “the smoothest transition imaginable.”
But he also drew applause when he said he would sign an executive order “imposing a strict limit on gifts on myself and the members of my administration,” fulfilling a campaign pledge he made after a gifts scandal rocked McDonnell’s governorship.
McAuliffe said McDonnell and outgoing Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling “will long be remembered for their leadership on transportation — not just for the policy accomplishment, but for the manner in which it was achieved.
“It was an approach that built consensus worthy of the Virginia way,” said McAuliffe, mindful that he will have to work with a Republican-dominated House of Delegates and a divided, unsettled state Senate.
McAuliffe said skeptics “are predicting divided government driven to gridlock by partisanship” and vowed to prove them wrong.
“Common ground doesn’t move toward us, we move toward it,” he said.
McAuliffe will have to overcome opposition from House Republicans to fulfill one of his top priorities — expanding Medicaid coverage to as many as 400,000 Virginians under the Affordable Care Act. He touched on the issue in his inaugural address, saying: “Like the majority of other states, we need to act on the consensus of the business community and health care industry to accept funding that will expand health care coverage, save rural hospitals and spur job creation.”
But McAuliffe said Saturday that the state’s most important policy challenge is diversifying the state’s economy to protect it from inevitable federal spending cuts and global competition. He said the top priority for his administration and the legislature “will be to lay the groundwork for a diverse and growing economy in every region of the commonwealth.”
Decisions made over the next four years will determine whether parents have retirement security, whether returning military veterans have employment opportunities and “whether children who grow up in rural Virginia can live, work and thrive in the communities where they were born,” McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe issued an executive order Saturday that prohibits workplace discrimination in state government on bases that include sexual orientation and gender identity, the first time in Virginia that transgender individuals have been covered under such a gubernatorial order.
Standing in front of a Capitol that has been roiled by debates over social issues in recent years, McAuliffe said his administration “will work tirelessly to ensure that those opportunities are equal for all of Virginia’s children — no matter if you’re a girl or a boy, no matter what part of the commonwealth you live in, no matter your race or religion, and no matter whom you love.”
“There is still work to do to,” McAuliffe said. “We must work to ensure that the children of new immigrants to Virginia have equal educational opportunities. To ensure that someone can’t lose a job simply because they are gay. And to ensure that every woman has the right to make her own personal health care decisions.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., one of seven former governors to witness Saturday’s transfer of power, said McAuliffe’s speech “set an appropriate tone.”
“What I was glad to hear was you can’t leave behind Southside or Southwest,” Warner said. “Those folks in rural Virginia have got to have the same opportunities as the kids in Fairfax.”
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said McAuliffe “made it clear he stands for diversity, he stands for opportunity for everyone.”
Hillary Clinton called McAuliffe’s speech “a very clear call to action.”
“I was very moved by it,” she said as she left the Capitol.
Clinton said McAuliffe “believes that people can find common ground, as he said today. So I think he is certainly relishing the moment but very clear-eyed about the work ahead.”
Dawn broke Saturday with fog shrouding the Capitol, and a steady rain began to fall as spectators arrived on the grounds for the inauguration ceremony. Legislators and other dignitaries donned blue and green ponchos in an effort to ward off some of the water.
Rain delayed the start of the ceremony. But it ceased just as 11-year-old Sophia Nadder of Midlothian stepped to the microphone and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” with such eloquence that former President Clinton could be seen mouthing “wow” when she finished. A few rays of sunshine penetrated the clouds after McAuliffe began his speech.
“I don’t know how he managed that,” joked Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Bedford County, who called the rain “a momentary inconvenience.”
Smith said he was impressed by the smooth transfer of power between administrations.
“We do it a little better here,” Smith said. “The only cannon fire was ceremonial.”
McAuliffe kicked off his inauguration day by joining his family at an interfaith prayer breakfast at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church near the Capitol.
Dr. Lincoln James, senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Richmond, prayed for McAuliffe to be delivered “from the temptation of personal ambition and from the desire for national exultation and power, to help him to seek the brotherhood of all men and all women without thought of creed or color.”
“Place in his spirit a passion for social justice that he will not be content as long as there are some in the commonwealth who have so little and some who have too much.”
McAuliffe pledged “that we’ll gather here again in four years, and in four years we’ll look back at an administration that worked to help all individuals of the commonwealth, with special emphasis on those who really need help.”