By Susan Milligan
(USN) – In an environment of Big Lie-telling, hate-tweeting and celebration of all things partisan, Glenn Youngkin looked like a relic from the Republican past as he campaigned successfully last year to be Virginia’s governor. With his fleece vests and affable manner, Youngkin cast himself as a determined conservative eager to unite the Old Dominion.
In November, he offered lavish public praise to the Democrat he was replacing, term-limited Gov. Ralph Northam, for welcoming Youngkin to the job and helping with the transition.
“No matter who you voted for, I pledge to be your advocate, your voice, your governor,” Youngkin said in his January inaugural address.
Less than a month into Youngkin’s term, analysts and Virginia Democrats say the state was sold a political bill of goods. Far from “bind[ing] the wounds of division,” as Youngkin pledged to do in his upbeat, olive branch-extending inaugural address, the new governor has taken a sharp turn to the right, they say, pushing an agenda that appeals to the Donald Trump wing of the party.
Days into his administration, Youngkin signed an executive order ending “the use of divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory, in public education.” Youngkin also instituted a tip line – a “snitch line,” as critics call it – so people could report behavior by teachers that they think violates his directive. Critical Race Theory, which posits that racism is baked into U.S. law and institutions, is not actually taught in K-12 schools.
He rescinded the coronavirus vaccine mandate for state employees and banned school districts from requiring kids to wear masks at school.
Youngkin nominated former Trump EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to be the state’s secretary of natural and historic resources. The governor also signed a directive beginning the withdrawal from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a pact created to fight pollution.
Some of those moves have been stalled: Wheeler’s nomination was rejected by the Democratic-controlled state Senate last week, and the unmasking order has been enjoined by a court for the seven districts challenging Youngkin’s order.
Every year, the privately-funded organization selects about 10 historic buildings in Virginia to preserve through its Endangered Historic Places Program, she said. Last year, the Old Dawn School was chosen after Morris nominated it.
No decisions have been made yet about how they will preserve the school, but Ingram noted there are grants available to fund the restoration of historical buildings.
But that hasn’t stopped the complaints that Youngkin, who conspicuously did not have Trump campaign for him in blue-ish Virginia, is bringing MAGA-ism to a state that voted for President Joe Biden over Trump by a 10-percentage point margin.
“Youngkin may have campaigned like (moderate) Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, but judging from his first month in office, he’s governing more like Ron DeSantis,” says University of Mary Washington political science professor Stephen Farnsworth, referring to the GOP Florida governor known for his directives against vaccine and mask-wearing mandates and in favor of rules restricting what teachers can say in the classroom.
After a welcoming inaugural message, “his first effort was to double down on Trump-style culture wars, which has increasingly become the norm for Republican officials,” Farnsworth says.
During the summer of the campaign, Youngkin – who had largely avoided answering questions about hot-button social issues – told supporters at a private event he would work to ban abortion if he was elected.
“When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense,” he confided. “But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”
Democrats seized on the leaked videotape to cast Youngkin as more dogmatic than he appeared on the campaign trail.
Youngkin was drawn into another controversy this week, after teenager Ethan Lynne tweeted out a news story from a local radio station suggesting that Youngkin might be eliminating a program by the two previous Democratic governors to highlight the work done by enslaved people at the governor’s mansion in the former Confederate state.
The report contained an error, which 17-year-old high school student Ethan Lynne also noted in a tweet. Nonetheless, Youngkin’s campaign Twitter account lashed back with a photo of Lynne with Northam next to a yearbook photo with a person in a Klansman outfit and another in blackface. The latter photo is well known in Virginia political circles. After it surfaced in 2019, Northam initially said he was one of the two individuals in the much-derided picture but later recanted and said it was not him.
“I could never imagine the governor would use his platform to bully a high school student,” Lynne said in a Zoom call with reporters this week. “People from all over have rushed in to mock me and harass me.”
Lynne has been actively involved in Democratic politics as a volunteer. The campaign took down the tweet, and Youngkin issued a statement saying he regretted that the “unauthorized tweet” was published and that he had “addressed” it with his team.
The controversy – relatively minor in the intersecting worlds of political and social media – doesn’t directly implicate Youngkin, who apparently had no knowledge of the tweet and did not approve of it. But it fed a narrative of Youngkin as a divider with his eyes on his next job.
“It’s a two-tiered governorship,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “The public figure is Glenn Youngkin in his suburban dad outfit and singing ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ smiling a lot and telling us how he’s going to unite everyone. But right out of the gate, he went far right on everything,” Sabato says.
Democratic Party officials have been early and very vocal in their complaints about the new governor.
“Without a doubt, Glenn Youngkin has shown, virtually from his first day in office, that he’s not some mild-mannered, basketball-playing, affable moderate from Northern Virginia,” says Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, of the former businessman who went to Rice University on a basketball scholarship.
“He’s a far right-wing Republican who caters to the fringe of his party. He’s done nothing but create chaos and division,” Swecker adds. The Republican Party of Virginia did not respond to an interview request.
Since Virginia law limits governors to a single, nonconsecutive term, Youngkin may be trying to appease another, broader audience, setting himself up as a possible vice presidential pick or a Cabinet secretary position in a GOP White House, Sabato says. “He’s trying to become the hero of the Trump wing” of the party, he says.
Youngkin defenders argue that the governor isn’t doing anything he hadn’t discussed on the campaign trail. Education and parental choice were central themes of his campaign, and his criticisms of critical race theory were cheered by suburban parents who attended his rallies. And other elements of Youngkin’s agenda – such as getting rid of the grocery tax – are not getting as much media attention, they note.
“Gov. Youngkin is delivering on the promises he laid out in his campaign on lowering the cost of living, ensuring safe communities and working for all Virginians,” says spokeswoman Macaulay Porter. “He’s reached across the aisle to do that.”
Youngkin does not want to have a combative relationship with Democrats, Youngkin advocates say. Even after Democratic Delegate Don Scott Jr. took to the state House floor to lambaste Youngkin – saying he was not “someone who is a man of faith, not a Christian, but someone who wants to divide the commonwealth” – the governor did not respond in kind and in public. Instead, Youngkin walked over to Scott’s office to talk privately, a source said.
And as for Biden? His approval numbers in Virginia have dropped since his commanding victory in 2020, analysts note. And Republicans didn’t just win the governorship in 2021, they flipped the state’s House of Delegates and won the races for lieutenant governor and state attorney general, indicating voters wanted a change.
Despite Democrats’ cries of foul, change is what Virginians got.