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Youngkin campaign attacks high school student on Twitter

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in Alexandria on Feb. 3. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin distanced himself Monday from a tweet mocking a teenager that went out Saturday on his campaign account, calling it “unauthorized.”

The “Team Youngkin” tweet lashed out at a high school student as well as Democrat Ralph Northam on Twitter this weekend, tweeting out the teen’s name and photo after the boy shared a news story about part of the Executive Mansion where enslaved workers once lived.

On Saturday afternoon, Ethan Lynne, 17, retweeted a report from the Richmond public radio station VPM suggesting that Youngkin (R) might be scrapping efforts pursued under two previous governors, Northam and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, to highlight the history of enslaved people at the mansion. The report contained an error, which Lynne noted on Twitter hours later, when VPM issued a correction.

But by then, “Team Youngkin” — the official Twitter account for Youngkin’s campaign — had attacked Lynne, posting a photo of the teen with Northam taken at a Democratic fundraiser in October.

“Here’s a picture of Ethan with a man that had a Blackface/KKK photo in his yearbook,” Team Youngkin tweeted a little before 5 p.m., pairing the October photo with a racist picture from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook that surfaced in 2019.

The tweet drew immediate backlash from Democrats, who called on Youngkin to apologize to Lynne. The attack on Youngkin’s predecessor drew less notice because Northam is a public figure and an adult, although it ran counter to Youngkin’s public expressions of thanks toward the Democrat for an “incredibly cooperative” transition.

Team Youngkin removed the tweet late Sunday morning but offered no apology. On Monday, Youngkin used his personal Twitter account to disavow the earlier tweet.

“On Saturday night, an unauthorized tweet came from a campaign account. I regret that this happened and it shouldn’t have. I have addressed it with my team. We must continue to work to bring Virginians together. There is so much more that unites us than divides us,” Youngkin said.

The governor’s office did not immediately comment on why it took Youngkin a day and a half to respond.

“A governor’s campaign account has attacked a minor — to me that was a new low,” Lynne said in an interview Sunday morning. “And they just now took it down. It was up for over 12 hours. I received no apology, no communication, nothing.”

Youngkin ran for office as a sunny, basketball-loving dad-next-door figure who promised to transcend political divisions even as he stoked culture wars related to K-12 education. “Love your neighbor,” he recently urged Virginians after a Page County mother, emboldened by the governor’s order to make masks in schools optional, threatened to show up with loaded guns if her local school board continued its mask mandate.

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Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter did not respond to questions about the tweet Sunday.

Matt Wolking, a Youngkin campaign spokesman who continues to work for the governor as a strategist at Axiom Strategies, responded to inquiries sent to Porter. He declined to say who wrote the tweet.

Wolking said Team Youngkin decided to remove the message after belatedly learning that Lynne — identified on Twitter as “Virginian. HS Senior. Democrat.” — was a minor. Wolking called Lynne a “Democrat Party official” and suggested that Democrats had made Lynne a fair target by previously promoting him on Twitter.

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“It was brought to [our] attention that this Democrat Party official repeatedly elevated by Senator Louise Lucas as a source of official Democrat Party communications is actually a minor, so the tweet was removed,” Wolking said in a text message.

Lucas (D-Portsmouth), the state Senate’s president pro tempore and a high-profile member of the Legislative Black Caucus, recently touted Lynne as a Democratic teen leader worth following on Twitter. She also jokingly urged Twitter followers to nudge Lynne to volunteer for her 2023 reelection bid.

Lucas blasted Youngkin for the original tweet — “cyber bullying of the worst kind” — and took issue with Wolking’s description of Lynne as a party official.

Lynne, who lives in Hanover County, said he has volunteered for Democrats since he was 10 years old. A former page in the state Senate, he now works after school as an unpaid intern for state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax).

“I have never been paid,” Lynne said. “I got paid through experience.”

The controversy stemmed from a pair of VPM news stories related to the historical quarters for enslaved people in a building adjacent to the mansion. On Wednesday, VPM reported that historian and archaeologist Kelley Fanto Deetz, who worked to reinterpret the site under Northam, arrived to work there last month to find her office emptied. She was unsure if she had a job under Youngkin, the report said.

The original report also said that the Youngkins had converted a classroom area into a family room. Porter, Youngkin’s spokeswoman, said that part of the report was incorrect — but she didn’t note this error until Saturday.

Porter did not take issue with the family room claim in the original story, issuing a statement to VPM saying only that first lady Suzanne Youngkin and her staff “are in the decision-making process regarding the executive mansion.”

On Friday, VPM reported a new development: Deetz had resigned. Lynne retweeted that story Saturday at 3:20 p.m.

“NEW: The historian tasked with teaching about slavery at the Virginia Governors Mansion just resigned after finding the Youngkins converted her classroom into a family room - and emptied her office,” he tweeted. “Shameful.”

As the story of Deetz’s resignation drew more notice Saturday, Porter pushed back on the claim about the family room. VPM’s Ben Paviour issued a correction that evening.

“Important correction to my stories on Exec. Mansion: Youngkin’s team says he hasn’t converted an educational space -> family room, and I’ve verified that,” he wrote. “Frustrating to learn this 2+ weeks after I emailed them about it, but I also should’ve dug more.”

Lynne promptly retweeted Paviour’s correction: “Update: It appears the ‘family’ room thing is TBD, still looks as though her office was emptied however.”

Team Youngkin had lashed out at him on Twitter earlier, but Lynne said he didn’t notice for hours.

On Sunday morning, Lynne was back on Twitter, thanking legislators and others who’d come to his defense — and scolding Youngkin.

“In school, we are taught how to spot bullying, and their tweet last night, perfectly fit that description,” he wrote in a post that had drawn more than 40,000 likes by Sunday afternoon. “It is disgusting, disturbing, and unbecoming of the Commonwealth to see the Governor and his office stoop this low, especially on a public platform.”

Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.