RICHMOND — The big unknown about Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) as he ran for office last year — apart from the exact size of his vast fortune — was just how red the political newcomer really was behind that easygoing demeanor.
Republican lawmakers say they’re energized by the fast start. “November’s election was a call for change in the commonwealth and, like a lot of voters across Virginia, I’m excited to see that our governor has hit the ground running on Day One,” House Majority Leader Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott) said.
But already the new governor has drawn a lawsuit from parents in Chesapeake over his executive order declaring an end to mask mandates in public school systems. The challenge led him Friday to issue another statement, which seemed to add to confusion about what will happen when his order takes effect Monday, saying parents should “listen to their principal” and “trust the legal process.”
Another executive order proclaiming a ban on teaching critical race theory — or any “inherently divisive concepts” — has the head of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus accusing Youngkin of a “war on Black history.”
“I was wondering if he would be more like DeSantis or Larry Hogan,” said longtime Richmond political analyst Robert Holsworth, referring to hard-right Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Maryland’s more moderate Republican governor. “But he really started with the culture wars, and, I think, in doing so, he has lost some political capital that he might have had with the Democrats.”
It’s a sharp turn for a state that had trended steadily blue for more than a decade and carries political risk for Youngkin. Although Republicans won a narrow majority in the House of Delegates, Democrats still have an edge in the Senate — giving them power to put the brakes on Youngkin’s agenda during the legislative session that began earlier this month.
The governor’s office issued a formal list of legislative priorities Friday evening, identifying specific bills and budget amendments that he supports to carry out his promises. Those include measures to expand the state’s Board of Elections and require a photo ID at the polls, as well as bills and budget items to suspend the gasoline tax, eliminate the grocery tax, boost the standard deduction and issue one-time tax rebates.
Youngkin’s wish list also includes a bill aimed at undoing some pro-labor measures Democrats enacted, such as repealing a mandate for project-labor agreements on public works and repealing the ability of public employees to engage in collective bargaining. Other legislation would pay for establishing public charter schools, putting resource officers in all schools and giving parents more power to prevent their children from being exposed to sexually explicit works in the classroom.
All of it would require action by the General Assembly and buy-in from Senate Democrats to become law.
Youngkin’s muscular use of executive action requires no such cooperation, though, and goes far beyond the practice of his predecessors in the Executive Mansion over the past 20 years. The five most recent governors — four Democrats and one Republican — all used their first executive actions on less incendiary topics: to call for fair and equal treatment of state employees; lay out powers for their chiefs of staff; and call for studies on issues of concern.
Youngkin, by contrast, has poked a stick directly into a host of polarizing issues, such as expanding the duties of the state’s diversity chief to include being an “ambassador for unborn children.” Along the way, his national profile has only risen, with Stephen Colbert satirizing his critical race theory directive on late-night TV and the conservative National Review posting a laudatory article about his quick, decisive actions.
“I’m suspicious that a number of issues he picked seem to rate more to a national movement, and he picked staff more related to national efforts than to Virginia,” said Del. Ken R. Plum (D-Fairfax), the longest-serving member of the House. Many of Youngkin’s Cabinet picks are from outside Virginia.
But his advisers say Youngkin is focused on being governor. The national attention is “all organic,” said Kristin Davison, a political consultant with Axiom Strategies, which continues to advise Youngkin. “He’s not doing anything to pump it up. He’s very, very cognizant of focusing on [the legislative] session. … He’s not even focused on the national front. That doesn’t mean the national front isn’t focusing on him.”
It appears that Republicans running for office in other states are trying to latch onto Youngkin or some of the trappings of his campaign. In Illinois, for example, Gary Rabine, a businessman running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, has plastered a photo of himself with Youngkin on a flier. A rival for the nomination, state Sen. Darren Bailey (R), has begun sporting a vest embroidered with his name and campaign logo — much like Youngkin’s signature campaign attire.
Youngkin has received at least two dozen requests to headline GOP fundraisers in other states, including two from New Hampshire, according to an adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. He has turned them down so far, the adviser said.
Youngkin is “off to a good start,” said state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), a veteran lawmaker who has sided with Democrats on issues such as Medicaid expansion. When Democrats grumble that Youngkin is like DeSantis, Hanger replies with a grin: “But he’s pleasant about it.”
“The thing that impresses me about him is he’s a great salesman,” Hanger said. “Of course, he’ll have to at some point be realistic about the politics of the moment and work for what’s doable.”
Youngkin’s actions “should come as no surprise to anyone who’s paying attention. He’s doing exactly what he campaigned on and what he said he would do on the campaign trail … and we’re not going to apologize for that,” Kilgore, the majority leader, said this week in a floor speech.
But some of Youngkin’s actions go further than what he suggested last year, particularly his order banning mask mandates in schools.
During the campaign, Youngkin made clear that he opposed mask or coronavirus vaccine mandates and, at one point, he told an interviewer that he would favor a DeSantis-like ban on local mandates. But then his staff clarified that Youngkin would not prohibit mandates, saying he would leave the decision up to local authorities.
Shortly after being elected, Youngkin told Richmond’s WRIC-TV that when it comes to ending state mandates, “localities are going to have to make decisions the way the law works.”
That’s not what his executive order did, though. It told parents they could decide whether their children would mask up. That led parents in Chesapeake to challenge the order as violating a bipartisan state law passed last year that requires school systems to follow federal health guidelines to the maximum extent “practicable.”
Even some fellow Republicans have questioned Youngkin’s action on masks.
Former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling (R) said Youngkin had created “unnecessary controversy, confusion and litigation” — all for an effort he predicts will fail because it is “in direct conflict with an existing state law.”
Todd Stottlemyer, former chairman of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, donated $25,000 to Youngkin on Jan. 10, just five days ahead of his swearing-in. A week later, Stottlemyer was on Facebook objecting to Youngkin’s executive action on masks.
“Glenn Youngkin is a friend and someone I have known and respected for many years. He is smart, kind, generous, and a person of genuine faith,” he began. But the order prohibiting localities from requiring masks in schools runs contrary to Youngkin’s professed conservative and federalist beliefs that decisions should be made at the level of government closest to the people, Stottlemyer wrote.
The new governor has also lighted a match under racial tensions with his focus on banning critical race theory, an intellectual framework for examining the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism. Youngkin acknowledges that Virginia history contains “ugly” chapters but aimed an executive order at stopping schools from teaching “inherently divisive” concepts about race.
Many Democrats in the General Assembly — particularly members of the Black Caucus — took offense at Youngkin’s message.
“I can’t find any other word to describe it other than ‘dangerous propaganda,’ ” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the Black Caucus. “I am surprised that he’s doubling down on these bad ideas, and I really was hoping that Virginia was far past this, but this administration is taking us back rather quickly.”
In some ways, Youngkin’s hard-charging start as governor resembles the first few weeks of the governorship of former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), said Quentin Kidd, head of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership.
Both men entered office without any experience in governing, and both began their terms with the assumption that they could push through what they considered to be a mandate from voters, Kidd said.
McAuliffe energetically wooed Republicans but soon learned that his main campaign promise — expanding Medicaid benefits to more Virginians — was not going to make it through the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, forcing him to back away from the issue, Kidd said.
But Holsworth, now an analyst in Richmond, said he sees similarities between Youngkin and former governor George Allen, another Republican who came into office (in 1994) after a long Republican drought in the top job. Allen used swagger and tough language to make big changes in education policy and to eliminate parole. But unlike Youngkin’s slim victory, Allen could use his 17-point win to claim a resounding mandate.
In an interview, the former governor said he is a big fan of Youngkin and his fast start, noting that every Virginia governor comes in with a sense of urgency because the state constitution prohibits them from serving consecutive terms.
“You don’t have time to dawdle,” Allen said.
He said Youngkin went a little further than he had expected by banning mask mandates. “During the transition time, it seemed like it was going to be a local option, and you’d have the Northern Virginia ones, generally speaking, keeping masks and all that, and then others would not,” Allen said.
But he praised Youngkin’s aggressive overall approach. “To the extent he could do anything on Day One, he’s done it,” he said. “And I think that’s fantastic. … I feel that Virginia’s getting liberated, I really do, from all these restrictions on free people and free enterprise. It’s invigorating.”
Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.