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Promises Broken: Governor Northam’s Inaugural Address


by Glen Besa, retired director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club

It was chilly that day less than one year ago when Ralph Northam took the oath of office as the 73rd Governor of the State of Virginia.  I had volunteered in Blue Wave, contributed money and found myself in the crowd that Saturday, January 13th to hear our newly elected Governor’s Inaugural Address. 

Let me say that I believe Ralph Northam is a decent human being, a respected physician and healer. He has delivered on his health care promise to the benefit of all Virginians. I’d like to believe he meant what he said on the Capitol steps that day, so it is fair to remind him of his words and the words of his father he referenced that day, “always trust your compass”.

In his speech our new Governor referred to his days at the Virginia Military Institute and to VMI’s Honor Code, “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do.”

He stated that “Those words have become a moral compass for me.” and then said, “Here is my personal commitment to you” which included:

It’s hard to square his commitment to the truth with the lies and coverups associated his administration’s firing of two Air Pollution Control Board members before a key vote on an air permit for Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline after they had expressed their doubts about the compressor station to be sited in the historic freeman community of Union Hill in Buckingham County.

Politics does have a way of fostering a moral relativism in politicians of all strips, Democrats and Republicans. None of us are perfect but when your business is the business of governing the people in a democracy it is fair for us to judge our elected officials by what they say and do. Given the need for compromise in the legislative process, an elected official’s policy compass can seldom point truth north in a democracy, but most voters are satisfied if their elected officials remain headed in the “right direction” as the pollsters like to call it.   

Sadly, Ralph Northam, ignoring his own compass, is headed in the wrong direction, deferring to Dominion on energy policy and going to extraordinary lengths to make sure Dominion gets its needed permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

In his less than 12 months on the job Governor Northam has consistently advanced the interests of energy giant, Dominion, rather than “put Virginia’s interests first”.  At the very start of his Administration he met with Dominion CEO Tom Farrell and signed off on Dominion-authored legislation to “modernize” the grid paid for with a blank check drawn on customers accounts with virtually no oversight or cost containment while charging us double for renewable energy.   For some strange reason, it did not occur to Governor Northam and his staff to first run that legislation by others with a different perspective, others who did not stand to profit to the tune of billions of dollars out of ratepayers pockets. Candidate Northam urged individual permits for pipeline stream crossings, but Governor Northam declined to require those permits as soon as he was sworn into office.

These troublesome episodes and his continuing embarrassment with the air board, DEQ and the pipeline projects might have been avoided if Governor Northam had only followed his other commitment in his Inaugural Address – “my door will always be open.” Actually, his door has *not* been open, and so he never hears countervailing points of view.

Near the close of his inaugural address, Dr. Northam shared how early in his medical career his bluntly honest assessment of a child’s poor prognosis had taken all hope away from that child’s parents. Realizing his mistake years later, Governor Northam pledged at his Inauguration “to fight every day for the hope that tomorrow will be better—for all of us not just some of us,” and that he would “lead us with humility and optimism, telling the truth, learning from history and removing every obstacle to progress for all Virginians.”

Regrettably, Governor Northam’s deference to Dominion Energy denies us any “hope” that he really is committed to seriously addressing climate change and fails to serve “all of us,” instead advancing Dominion’s narrow interests. Our Governor has neither told “the truth” nor learned “from history” as he allows Dominion Energy to obstruct our “progress” to a clean energy future and a healthy climate.

With all the bad news on climate change reflected in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1.5 Degree report and the 4th National Climate Assessment, the need for leadership and a vision of a vibrant clean energy future could not be more urgent.  Instead, Governor Northam goes about wearing Dominion’s self-serving dirty energy policies like the emperor’s new clothes.

How does our Governor get out of this self-inflicted mess? He could start by honoring the VMI Honor Code and his own words in his Inaugural Address:

  • “I will always tell the truth,”
  • “I will always put Virginia’s interests first,”
  • “And my door will always be open.”

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