The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Glenn Youngkin, first Republican to win statewide in Virginia since 2009, takes office

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears and attorney general Jason Miyares were sworn into office in Richmond, Va. on Jan. 15. (Video: The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Glenn Allen Youngkin, a Republican former business executive who has never held elective office, became Virginia’s 74th governor Saturday, promising “a mission to restore trust in government” and then acting to remove vaccine and mask mandates and ban the teaching of critical race theory in his first few hours on the job.

Youngkin’s inauguration capped a day of historic diversity, with Lt. Gov. Winsome E. Sears sworn in as the first woman of color to hold statewide office in Virginia and Attorney General Jason S. Miyares becoming the first Latino in statewide elective office.

Thousands of spectators cheered wildly in the frigid sunshine as Youngkin, standing on the steps of the state Capitol, delivered the blend of religious confidence and boardroom bravado that powered his victory last fall.

“Today we stand together on behalf of Virginians who’ve never lost faith, even when they have suffered loss,” Youngkin said in his inaugural address. “Of Virginians who have not stopped dreaming of a better life, even in the midst of trials and tribulations. My fellow Virginians, the spirit of Virginia is alive and well. And together we will strengthen it.”

As ceremonies were about to give way to the inaugural parade, Youngkin, who founded a church in his basement, took the highly unusual step of leading the closing prayer himself. “There’s no way to embark on what’s in front of us without asking for some help,” he said, and then prayed, “Father, we invite you into the next four years. Bring Virginians together.”

But the rumble of marching bands had barely faded when Youngkin stirred partisan rancor by signing 11 executive actions that fulfilled campaign promises, including one that bans the teaching of critical race theory, an academic framework for examining racism in society that has never been part of the state’s public school curriculum.

“The war they have declared on Black history is dangerous, to say the least,” Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, told reporters soon after.

Youngkin also signed an order aimed at giving parents the ability to opt out of mask mandates in schools, which Democratic former governor Ralph Northam’s health commissioner had ordered statewide for public and private K-12 schools.

While some Democrats had taken to social media early in the proceedings to praise Youngkin for his theme of unity, they quickly soured. Del. Elizabeth R. Guzman (Prince William) first tweeted her support for his plans to “empower parents” and cut taxes. But she later followed up with a tweet that called his executive orders “divisive and disappointing.”

A 55-year-old former private equity executive with a huge personal fortune and no political experience, Youngkin is the first Republican to win statewide office in Virginia since 2009. He takes office in the midst of two states of emergency — a 30-day limited state of emergency aimed at the state’s hospitals, which are struggling amid soaring coronavirus caseloads, and another ahead of a snowstorm slated to hit the state Sunday.

Youngkin rode a huge GOP turnout in the November elections to a two-point victory that signaled Virginia is not as solidly blue as it appeared while President Donald Trump was in the White House.

His popularity helped Republicans win back the majority in the House of Delegates, which Democrats had controlled for two years. But as Youngkin gets down to the business of governing, he will face the need to negotiate and compromise with a Democratic majority in the state Senate.

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The divided government could create tough going for Youngkin as he seeks to make good on promises to undo two years of unbridled Democratic power — though with a state budget flush with cash, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have already signaled interest in rolling back state taxes.

On Saturday, Sen. Mamie E. Locke (Hampton), chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, issued a statement saying Democrats in the chamber hope for a “great working relationship” with Youngkin but have “no intention [of] rolling back two years of tremendous progress for all Virginians.”

Youngkin takes over from Northam, who plans to return to Norfolk and resume his practice as a pediatric neurologist. Ahead of the swearing in, Northam and his wife, Pam, handed off their Executive Mansion key to the Youngkins. Northam apologized to Youngkin for the state of the plastic key card — it had been chewed by one of the family dogs, Pearl. “I can promise you that it still works,” Northam said.

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Security was high and outdoor temperatures were low Saturday as hundreds of lawmakers, ticketed constituents, family members and other dignitaries — almost every living former governor was in attendance — made their way through checkpoints and toward the Capitol building. Former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe — who ran unsuccessfully against Youngkin last year — tweeted that he and his wife, Dorothy, would not be there because they were quarantining after being in close contact with someone who had covid-19.

“We wish Glenn Youngkin and the new administration well today as they start their term!” McAuliffe wrote.

As Youngkin began to deliver his address, he was interrupted by a loud flyover of military jets. He ad-libbed: “And we celebrate the sound of freedom!” The crowd responded by chanting, “USA! USA!”

Youngkin, who paired the traditional morning suit worn for the state’s inaugurations with black cowboy boots, thanked Northam for his service, then thanked the voters who sent him to Richmond “on a mission to restore trust in government, and to restore power to the people.”

Youngkin described his election as a “movement” to protect liberty and create opportunity. He pledged to be a governor for all Virginians, “no matter who you voted for.”

The new governor offered prayers for the 15,000 Virginians who have lost their lives to the coronavirus pandemic over the past two years and expressed sympathy for the parents and children who have grappled with school shutdowns and economic distress from the pandemic.

A line paying tribute to vaccines and “the miracle of modern medicine” fell flat with the largely mask-free crowd, but a follow-up line about “respect for individual freedom” drew a huge roar of approval.

During his campaign for office, Youngkin struck a delicate balance between courting the Trump-loving base of the GOP and appealing to more moderate suburban voters. On Saturday he proclaimed that “our politics have become too toxic.”

As he often did on the campaign trail, Youngkin invoked Virginia’s heritage and its legacy of Founding Fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He acknowledged that some parts of the state’s history have included “chapters of great injustice,” but invoked the names of “barrier-breakers” such as Black business executive Maggie Walker and former governor L. Douglas Wilder — the first Black man elected governor of any state — as paving the way for Saturday’s inauguration of Sears as lieutenant governor.

Sears, a Jamaican immigrant who arrived for the ceremonies wearing a full-length fur coat, was almost as popular with the crowd as Youngkin. “We love you, Miss Sears!” someone cried out.

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The first policy priority Youngkin mentioned was also the one that seemed to power him to his election win: education. He promised to raise teacher pay and standards of education, and said he would “remove politics from the classroom” and focus on core subjects such as math, science and reading, drawing one of his biggest rounds of applause. He pledged to keep children in school five days a week, having run against the school shutdowns that accompanied the depths of the pandemic — a promise that also drew hearty applause.

Youngkin promised to cut taxes and reduce regulations for businesses and increase funding for police.

While he said all those promises would be done “starting today,” the fact is that Youngkin will have to work with the divided legislature to get many of them enacted.

Some, though, he addressed in Saturday’s executive actions. In a flurry of signings, Youngkin lifted the mask mandate on K-12 students effective Jan. 24, declared that executive branch workers need not be vaccinated, fired the Virginia Parole Board and called for an investigation of its recent actions.

He also called for a probe of Loudoun County Public Schools’ handling of two sexual assault cases. (Miyares immediately announced he’d launched both investigations.) Other orders established commissions to study human trafficking and ways to combat antisemitism.

Youngkin also signed an order to “reevaluate” Virginia’s membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate compact aimed at reducing carbon emissions. Youngkin has said he wants to withdraw, but his order suggested that it might require legislative action to carry that out.

With another order, he declared an end to “the use of inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory,” in public schools — something his superintendent of public instruction was tasked with carrying out by reviewing “all changes” made to the state’s public school curriculum over the past four years.

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As he signed them in the governor’s ceremonial office on the third floor of the Capitol, Youngkin said a few words about each order but did not go into detail. He noted that he aimed to remove “burdensome covid-19 regulations” on businesses.

“We can do this. We can beat covid-19 without infringing on the individual liberties that we hold so dear,” Youngkin said.

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Youngkin’s first challenge with the legislature next week might be getting all of his Cabinet appointments confirmed.

Youngkin has named 13 Cabinet nominees and most, like the new governor, are strangers to state government. Their newcomer status is on brand for Youngkin, who ran touting his lack of political experience as an asset. But it also presents the new administration with a steep learning curve.

Youngkin has tapped a few experienced Richmond hands, including Richard Cullen, a former U.S. attorney, state attorney general and longtime law firm chairman. Cullen, regarded as the ultimate Richmond insider, has been named the governor’s counselor — a choice widely seen as a nod to the establishment class.

Yet Youngkin telegraphed exactly the opposite message by naming Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who was Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency chief, for secretary of natural resources. Senate Democrats are vowing to defeat Wheeler’s nomination — a rarity for a General Assembly that hasn’t snubbed a governor’s Cabinet pick since 2006.

A full slate of festivities was planned for Youngkin and the new administration, including a black-tie dinner Friday night at the Science Museum of Virginia that carried a price of $10,000 per person, and what was billed as a more casual affair Saturday night at the downtown Richmond train station, costing $200 a head. Overall, Youngkin has raised more than $4 million for his inauguration — far more than the $2.7 million Northam raised four years ago and the $2.4 million McAuliffe raised in 2014, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

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