The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin unveils unusual partnership to fix problems in Petersburg

The afternoon sun creates shadows on buildings along Sycamore Street in Petersburg, Va., in 2019. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)
7 min

PETERSBURG, Va. — Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) said Monday that he is committing his administration to an unusual partnership with this economically distressed, violence-prone city south of Richmond, to revitalize its fortunes and improve the quality of life for residents.

In an extraordinary two-hour ceremony, Youngkin and seven of his Cabinet secretaries detailed 42 initiatives they pledged to undertake with Petersburg officials and faith, civic and education leaders.

“This is a big day,” Youngkin said to reporters after the event at the Petersburg public library. “This is a lot more than words. There are a lot of actions that need to accompany this, but I feel incredibly encouraged by the coming-together.”

The event united hundreds of leaders from Petersburg — a heavily Democratic, majority-Black city that has suffered deep financial woes — with most of Virginia’s Republican executive branch. It was a remarkable turn for an administration that has drawn criticism for agitating the racial divide, particularly for its crusades against “equity” in school programs and against critical race theory, a framework for studying race that is not on Virginia school curriculums.

Mayor Samuel Parham, a longtime Democrat, praised Youngkin profusely, and the two men said the effort is the product of several conversations they’ve held about how to heal the city’s ills.

“Governor Youngkin is the first to step down here and say that he is going to put all of his resources in a city to move the dial to create prosperity here in the city of Petersburg,” Parham told reporters. “Democrats and Republicans working together — that’s what makes Virginia special.”

Petersburg has long suffered problems that state officials have struggled to address. Six years ago, the city nearly went bankrupt and had to shut down key services, leading Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to send the state finance secretary to personally review Petersburg’s finances.

City on the brink: Petersburg can't pay its bills, and time is running out

That situation led the General Assembly to create a mechanism for the State Auditor of Accounts to periodically review municipal ledgers around the state, flagging potential problems before they get as bad as Petersburg’s.

Most of the financial resources cited Monday by Youngkin and his cabinet were either approved by the General Assembly in this year’s session or are federal projects that have long been in the works. And Youngkin made clear during the presentation that the “Partnership for Petersburg” touted on signs all around the building — signs paid for by Youngkin’s political action committee, Spirit of Virginia — is not a government handout.

“Let me be clear,” he told the crowd. “I do not believe that government should fix everything. But I hold firmly to the responsibility of a public servant to be a catalyst, a full partner to empower, to uplift, to provide alternative solutions.”

State Democrats seemed somewhat caught off guard by Youngkin’s big rollout but quickly pointed out that many of its components have been around for some time.

“As usual, the Governor is taking credit for other people’s work,” House Minority Leader Del. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) said via text message. “I’m glad that, at the very least, Governor Youngkin recognizes that government can work to bring people together to solve problems.”

Youngkin said the effort hinges on local residents working together in a public-private partnership, with government pitching in to facilitate. The initiative, which aides said has been in the works for weeks if not months, consists of six areas of emphasis: education, public safety, health care, transportation, economic development, and relations between the community and faith leaders.

Cabinet secretaries representing each area made presentations of their specific goals, outlined several initiatives to satisfy those goals, and introduced stakeholders that would be working as partners, such as the YMCA, church groups and city officials.

After each presentation, the secretaries and stakeholders ceremonially signed a pledge describing their commitments.

Education Secretary Aimee Rogstad Guidera, for instance, touted a proposal from Virginia State University — which is a historically Black college — and Richard Bland College to start a “lab school” in Petersburg in partnership with the local K-12 school system. Lab schools have been a major Youngkin initiative; the General Assembly set aside $100 million for such projects in the coming fiscal year but did not approve funding beyond that.

Guidera also announced a new program in which Virginia State will train people to serve as mentors and tutors in the Petersburg school system, and said the YMCA has committed to providing special programs in schools to help children get extra support.

“We’re excited about lab schools,” Petersburg School Board Chairman Kenneth Pritchett said afterward. Petersburg schools are some of the most trouble-plagued in the state, with 2½ times the state’s average for absenteeism.

“We thank the governor for bringing everyone in the commonwealth of Virginia together for Petersburg,” Pritchett said. “We needed change, like, yesterday.”

Youngkin and Parham said the seeds of the effort go back to a meeting in February in which state and local officials discussed the city’s problems with violence. State Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R), speaking Monday, said the city has the highest per capita murder rate in Virginia, at more than three times the state average.

Miyares said he has asked two federal prosecutors assigned to the region to focus on violent crime in Richmond and Petersburg.

Since April, Virginia State Police have committed additional resources to Petersburg, which city Police Chief Travis C. Christian credited with leading to a reduction of violent crime. Christian said Public Safety Secretary Robert Mosier calls him at least once a week “to make sure we’re just doing okay here in the city of Petersburg.”

Priorities listed by Transportation Secretary Shep Miller include several federal programs that have long been in the works. Those include a $58 million grant awarded to Virginia and North Carolina to improve rail service between Richmond and Raleigh, which will benefit Petersburg, as well as federal money to improve the local Amtrak station.

One Democratic lawmaker spoke at the event: state Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey, whose district includes Petersburg and who is seen as a potential swing vote for Republicans seeking to pass increased limits on abortion next year. Democrats hold a 21-19 majority in the Senate but Morrissey has signaled he could be open to restrictions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“I look forward, governor, to working with you. You told me eight months ago that you were going to make Petersburg a focal point of your administration. You done it — thanks very much,” Morrissey said to applause from the crowd.

Former Petersburg delegate Lashrecse D. Aird (D), who is challenging Morrissey for his Senate seat in 2023, said later that she hopes the faith of local leaders is rewarded, noting that Youngkin is widely seen to have ambitions for national office.

“He has spent his first year in office pitting White against Black because it’s been politically advantageous,” Aird said. “I just hope his new national ambitions aren’t the reason he’s now seeking out … one of the Blackest localities in the commonwealth.”

After the ceremonies, Youngkin was asked by a reporter how he would measure whether the partnership has been successful. Every one of the initiatives, he replied, has “measurable key results” that will demonstrate whether Petersburg’s situation has improved.

“We do things focused on outcomes and results,” Youngkin said. Having the Cabinet secretaries sign pledges “was done not for show, but for accountability,” he said, adding that he expects to get regular reports on progress.

Two cities share a name, water and a library. But one is in big trouble.

Youngkin said he intends Petersburg to be a pilot program for a model that can be taken to localities around the state. But he also made clear that part of the reason this one came first is that he felt a close relationship with Mayor Parham — who stood beside Youngkin as he spoke with reporters.

“The mayor and I just hit it off,” Youngkin said.

Asked later if he is becoming a Republican, Parham gave a hearty laugh. “I got a special man right there in Governor Youngkin,” he said. “I have his back, he has mine.”