RICHMOND — There’s an unwritten rule in this tradition-bound state that the outgoing governor plays a few pranks on his successor and, a day or two later, the new governor lets the world in on the jokes.
Virginia’s 73rd governor left a fleece vest hanging in the closet for the 74th, who had made that suburban-dad accoutrement his signature campaign-trail look. But this one was blue instead of red. And in place of “Youngkin,” the embroidery trumpeted a Northam achievement that ran counter to the Republican’s campaign-trail claim that the Democrat had run the state “into the ditch.”
“Top State For Business,” it read, referring to the CNBC rating Northam twice racked up.
In the governor’s office, Northam left a life-size cutout of former president Donald Trump, holding two thumbs up. The cardboard Trump had been kicking around Capitol Square since 2018, when outgoing Democrat Terry McAuliffe planted it in the office as a prank on the newly inaugurated Northam, who’d run for office calling Trump a “narcissistic maniac.”
The cutout packed extra punch for Youngkin, given how he’d alternately embraced the former president and kept him at arm’s length during the campaign, as he courted both suburban moderates and avid Trump supporters. Northam drove the point home by attaching a speech bubble to the president’s image: “I will call soon — we need to talk about 2024!”
Youngkin is a political newcomer who may have let Virginia’s quadrennial gubernatorial high jinks escape his notice while he was climbing the corporate ladder at the Carlyle Group. But the practice is deeply ingrained, bipartisan and dearly loved, at least by politics-watchers accustomed to a little levity mixed with the peaceful transfer of power.
“The prank is the last bipartisan thing we have left,” said Tucker Martin, who was spokesman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).
A Youngkin spokesman initially brushed off requests to disclose the pranks, but his office later disclosed some of them — although not all. It volunteered nothing about the vest or Trump cutout, both confirmed by two people familiar with the items, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the practical jokes.
Youngkin’s team did not respond when asked about those two items, but it went public with a few of the other gags.
Those included festooning the mansion with flags from the University of Houston, rival of Rice University, where Youngkin played basketball. Photos of Northam were also scattered around the mansion, as were stickers emblazoned with pictures of marijuana, which was legalized under the Democrat.
Northam also left behind a book written by McAuliffe, who made an unsuccessful comeback bid against Youngkin.
On his way out of the Executive Mansion four years ago, McAuliffe left a pair of custom pillows — emblazed with his face and “sleep when you’re dead” — on the Northams’ bed.
In 2014, departing governor McDonnell set an alarm clock to go off at 4 a.m., giving McAuliffe a jolt on his first weekend in the mansion. Another surprise awaited McAuliffe when he arrived at his office: a huge, taxidermied bear loomed in the governor’s private bathroom.
On his way out, in 2010, now-Sen. Tim Kaine (D) hid cellphones in the mansion elevator shaft and periodically called them as a trick on McDonnell. It took a few days for McDonnell’s team to locate them.
And before that, now-Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) left a life-size cutout of himself in the governor’s mansion shower for Kaine.