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The two sides of Youngkin: Virginia’s new governor calls for unity but keeps stoking volatile issues

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) speaks during a news conference about an executive order establishing K through 12 lab schools at the Capitol on Jan. 27 in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)
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A previous version of this story said incorrectly that Gov. Glenn Youngkin has drawn criticism for suspending tours that explore the history of enslavement at the Executive Mansion. Official tours have been suspended since the coronavirus pandemic. This version has been amended to say he has drawn criticism for uncertainty around the future of the slave history program.

RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin sat in a conference room near the State Capitol last week and lamented the “divisive” nature of politics, then praised Democrats for joining him on a measure to lift school mask mandates.

But as he spoke of unity, his office put out a statement saying school boards that disagree with him are “attacking their own students” and “stunningly detached from reality.”

Such mixed messages — pleas for civility accompanied by a verbal smackdown — are something of a hallmark for Youngkin (R), a political neophyte whose campaign last year depicted him as both a mainstream moderate and a bright red admirer of Donald Trump.

After a month in office, it’s becoming clear that the duality is a feature, not a bug. Which is the real Youngkin? Depends on the audience. At the Capitol, he has impressed officials with his ability to absorb information and ask smart questions. He has met with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and prayed for peace in memory of the fallen Bridgewater College officers.

One of Va. Gov. Glenn Youngkin's first acts was an executive order making masks optional in schools. Some parents worry what it could mean for their kids. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Va. Gov. Youngkin's assertive first week in office leaves Republicans jubilant, Democrats fuming

Then there’s the Youngkin who stirred lawsuits with his day-one executive order allowing parents to opt their students out of wearing a mask at school, whose campaign Twitter account provoked outrage by ridiculing a teenager, and who threw the Capitol into disarray Friday by threatening to hold up hundreds of government appointments in a disagreement with Democrats.

“When you’re making change, there are people that are going to disagree with you,” Youngkin told Fox News host Sean Hannity, during one of two recent appearances on Fox programs. “I’m not going to make everybody happy along the way.”

What has the State Capitol chattering is the degree to which Youngkin’s harsher messages seem to be aimed at a national audience, fueling speculation that he has aspirations beyond Richmond.

The full measure of Youngkin’s fresh administration was on display last week with his first big legislative win on the effort to end K-12 mask mandates. On Feb. 4, an Arlington judge handed him a stinging rebuke, issuing a temporary injunction against his executive order empowering parents to opt their students out of school mask mandates.

Judge temporarily halts Youngkin order making masks optional in Va. schools after lawsuit from school boards

Youngkin gathered a handful of aides for a pep talk that Friday afternoon. “He said, ‘We’re going to press forward on this because we’re right,’ ” Richard Cullen, the governor’s counsel, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “It was, ‘We’re just in the first inning here. Keep your eye on the ball.' ”

Less than a week later, Youngkin got his home run thanks in large part to state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), an independent-minded lawmaker who had railed against former Democratic governor Ralph Northam’s coronavirus executive orders. Petersen headed into this year’s legislative session determined to bring an end to the school mask requirements.

When he and Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico) came up with a plan to amend a schools bill to make masks optional, they contacted the administration’s policy chief, Matthew Moran — a former Virginia House staffer and one of the few Richmond veterans in Youngkin’s inner circle.

Virginia Senate Democrats join GOP on amendment to allow parents to opt out of school mask mandates

“I gave them a heads up because obviously I need them to sign the bill,” Petersen said. “I talked to Matt Moran. That was basically, like, ‘Whatever you need from us.’ ” Moran declined to comment to The Post about the discussions.

The handful of Democrats who wound up supporting Petersen’s effort said they were motivated by falling coronavirus rates, the decisions of Democratic governors in other states to start winding down mask mandates and a belief that Youngkin’s executive order was illegal.

But Youngkin went on Hannity and then Fox’s “The Story” to take credit for leading the anti-mask effort in not only Virginia, but those other states — citing a national movement of disgruntled parents.

Youngkin’s election campaign, led by consultants at Axiom Strategies, had leveraged parental frustration over pandemic-related school shutdowns to power last year’s two-point GOP victory in a Virginia that had been trending blue. The governor and his consultants continue to ride that wave.

“It has been such an intense movement that has trickled around the country that one by one, you saw other governors doing the same, not just Republican governors but Democratic governors as well,” said Kristin Davison, an Axiom Strategies consultant who advises Youngkin. “The governor’s leadership was only inspiring it to continue across the country.”

Youngkin says he's 'having a ball,' defends polarizing actions as living up to campaign promises

But there are significant differences in the other states Youngkin cites, such as New Jersey and Delaware. Those governors timed their mask mandates to lift in a few weeks, as coronavirus numbers decline, and left localities empowered to impose their own mandates. Youngkin’s action, and the General Assembly bill, would gut all mandates by allowing parents to opt their children out.

It’s another example of Youngkin sending mixed signals. Last year, before and after the election, Youngkin said he would stop the state mandate but let localities decide for themselves. Last week, in a brief sit-down interview — his first with The Post since he was elected — Youngkin said there is no contradiction between his promises and actions.

“I had said that I was not going to get in the way of localities having mask mandates, but I also said I was going to stand up for parents’ rights,” he said.

When it was pointed out that allowing parents to opt out effectively means no mandates, Youngkin said: “This is about parents having a choice. And so if there’s a … [school district that says] we’d like everybody to wear a mask, and there are some parents who say it’s not right for my children, that’s in fact empowering parents.”

On Thursday, Youngkin used a campaign-style event in Virginia Beach as backdrop for an appearance on the Fox News program “The Story,” where host Martha MacCallum spoke of a “Youngkin effect” spreading around the nation as “covid moms” feel empowered to become politically active.

“We’re making change. We’re standing up for parents,” Youngkin said, decrying “mandatory mask culture” in schools.

Spending part of his time in fiery campaign mode — with tightly controlled media appearances favoring right-leaning radio and TV hosts — has worked against Youngkin’s need to establish himself with lawmakers in Richmond. While Republicans have a 52-48 edge in the House of Delegates, Democrats hold a 21-19 majority in the Senate and can put the brakes on Youngkin’s agenda.

“It’s as if either he thinks or consultants believe that he can speak to two different audiences and each doesn’t see what the other sees,” said Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico).

A high school civics teacher, VanValkenburg said he’s all the more frustrated by the messaging because he has found the administration to be responsive and engaged on education policy.

Insiders depict Youngkin as relentlessly upbeat, even when work days stretch 12 hours or more. Top officials have learned to sleep with their phones so they can respond to Youngkin’s text messages, which can land as early as 5 a.m.

Staffers routinely groan about Youngkin’s early business hours. He meets every morning around 6:30 with chief of staff Jeff Goettman, either at the Executive Mansion or over the phone, then huddles at 7 with top advisers in the Patrick Henry Building, including Cullen, communications director Becca Glover and Moran, the policy director.

During the day, Youngkin walks the halls of the Patrick Henry building’s third floor and doesn’t mind senior staff popping into his office as needed. “There’s discipline, obviously, but it’s not like people are afraid to stick their head in and say, ‘Do you have a minute, sir?’ ” Cullen said.

Aubrey Layne, a Republican who served as finance secretary under Northam and transportation secretary under former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), is working part-time with Youngkin to help his finance staff get up to speed. He describes a governor who uses his background as the former chief executive of a private equity firm to full advantage in looking at budgetary issues.

Youngkin is far more prepared to talk about financial matters than most politicians he has worked with, Layne said. “The questions he would ask were more in line with a CEO asking me a question and challenging me on things instead of just asking for information,” he said.

Democrats complain that some of Youngkin’s appointees are less prepared, many having come from outside Virginia. A video montage circulating on social media showed various secretaries or department heads telling General Assembly committees that they don’t know the answers to questions about state policy.

There have also been accusations that Youngkin has been slow to fill posts or resolve whether longtime appointees will keep their jobs. Several people familiar with the appointment process said candidates have been asked litmus-test questions about their views on such issues as abortion, transgender policy or the teaching of critical race theory, which Youngkin banned in his first executive order.

Glover, Youngkin’s communications director, said “that was not my experience” but otherwise declined to comment on the matter.

Appointments also led to a major showdown between Youngkin and Democratic lawmakers on Friday. Senate Democrats rejected Youngkin’s nomination of former Trump official Andrew Wheeler as the state’s natural resources secretary — an unusual step, but not unheard-of during times of divided government in Richmond.

Youngkin responded with all-out war. He pressured House Republicans to threaten to withhold what is usually routine confirmation of nearly 1,000 appointments Northam made last year to boards and commissions. Legislative business ground to a halt until Republicans finally backed down on all but 11 appointees.

“Gov. Youngkin is willing to trigger a partial government shutdown over the loss of one Trump official. This is another hard right turn away from his pledge to ‘disagree without being disagreeable,’ ” House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said.

The dust up prompted an irritated Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), the highest-ranking Black woman in the General Assembly, to go public with the fact that Youngkin had confused her with another Black lawmaker — Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton) — when he sent a text earlier in the week praising a Black History Month speech.

Youngkin praises senator for speech on Black History Month - but mistook her for a colleague

Race has been a volatile issue for Youngkin, one where he has sent particularly provocative mixed signals. During the campaign, he routinely riled up predominantly White crowds by railing against critical race theory, an academic framework for studying the history of systemic racism that is not on Virginia’s K-12 curriculum. The day he was sworn in as governor, Youngkin made a point of designating a ban on schools teaching “divisive” race-related topics as Executive Order 1.

The actions led Del. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth), who is Black, to question Youngkin’s religious faith on the floor of the House of Delegates. Youngkin responded by venturing into the legislative office building for a private meeting with Scott. As governor, he has prayed with Black ministers and pledged funding for historically Black colleges and universities. He has also drawn criticism for uncertainty around the future of a program to teach the history of enslavement at the Executive Mansion.

Asked in the interview if he sees race as a particularly fraught issue in the current climate, with the newly energized social justice movement, Youngkin said that “I don’t think it’s any different than the way it’s been for quite a while … We have to embrace our differences and work together on accomplishing shared values and shared goals. And so the discussion around race isn’t one that we should walk away from, it’s one we should walk to.”

But Youngkin’s fanning of the national culture wars over race has fueled speculation that he is aiming beyond Richmond to a run for president. He is aware of the rumors. “I’m very honored by them, but I’m so focused on the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he said. “We have real work to do and we’re getting the work done.”