The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. Gov. Youngkin’s first year a clash of politics and policy

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) during a news conference at Carter Machinery on Jan. 5 in Salem, Va. Youngkin's performance as governor his first year in office was often hard to distinguish from his political ambitions. (Scott P. Yates/The Roanoke Times/AP)

RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) was partway through a speech touting accomplishments from his first year in office when he introduced two guests from the majority-Black city of Petersburg: Mayor Samuel Parham, a Democrat, and Police Chief Travis Christian.

“The mayor and the chief embody the spirit of Virginia,” Youngkin told members of the House of Delegates and state Senate this month in his State of the Commonwealth speech. “They represent the millions of Virginians who desperately want their leaders to set aside politics and focus on delivering results.”

What he didn’t say — but what the capitalized “Spirit of Virginia” in the written version of the speech made clear — is that his plea to transcend politics was itself a deeply political statement. Spirit of Virginia is the name of his political action committee, which he has used to promote himself and fellow Republicans in Virginia and around the country. Youngkin would mention the phrase a total of 10 times in the speech.

It’s a fitting metaphor for a year in which Youngkin rode his 2021 election in blue-leaning Virginia to national political status as a potential 2024 presidential hopeful. His performance as governor was often hard to distinguish from his political ambitions.

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Youngkin arrived at the Executive Mansion a little over one year ago with a burst of bravado, a brand-new figure in Virginia politics who radiated the success of a can-do multimillionaire and promised a “movement” to “restore power to the people.”

In the 12 months since inauguration, Youngkin has faced the realities of governing a diverse state with a divided legislature. The results have been mixed. His legislative wins — most notably an end to mask mandates in public schools and $4 billion worth of tax cuts — came with the cooperation of the Democratic-controlled state Senate.

Other initiatives might have won Youngkin points in national conservative media — prohibiting the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools, setting up a “tip line” for parents to report objectionable school officials — but inflamed tensions without producing any real outcome.

One year in, he remains something of a cipher. Youngkin is a Virginia native who turned to outsiders for high-profile roles in his Cabinet; a political novice with a team of national political consultants; a voracious absorber of information who let embarrassing mistakes slip into public documents; a self-professed “uniter” who repeatedly stoked political and racial divisions.

Most significantly, Youngkin as governor has continued the balancing act he pioneered as a candidate — reaching out to both the Trump base of the GOP and more mainstream Virginia voters. Recent statewide polls have shown him with approval ratings of 50 percent or slightly better.

“At least up to now, he’s managed in some fashion to separate his continual political rhetoric on Fox News from the overall perception that a lot of everyday Virginians have of him. So his approval rating has ticked up a little bit from the election,” longtime Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth said. “On Fox he talks about taking on the lefties, you know, and traveling around the state he’s talking about raising standards in schools and giving parents rights and getting people money back on their taxes.”

In a recent appearance before The Washington Post’s editorial board, with reporters, editors and opinion writers in attendance, Youngkin said his first year delivered on essentially all of his campaign promises.

“Even in a state that has a Senate that’s controlled by Democrats and a House that’s controlled by Republicans … we got just about everything done that we wanted to get done” last year, Youngkin said. “Our entire agenda that we campaigned on got put into action.”

But “put into action” sometimes meant attention-grabbing gestures more than actual change in policy, such as Youngkin’s directive ordering schools to categorize transgender children by their “biological sex” when it comes to using restrooms or participating in activities. Legal experts said the policy is unenforceable and appears to violate state and federal law.

Youngkin’s restriction on trans students’ rights is probably illegal, experts say

Even some Republicans have grumbled that Youngkin would be wise to spend more time in Virginia and less time taking his political message around the country. Youngkin campaigned in 15 states last year for Republicans running for governor; only five of his candidates won, and those were in solid red states.

Youngkin’s signature red vest didn’t deliver big wins for GOP nominees

Youngkin’s magic also failed to rub off on candidates in Virginia. Only one of three competitive congressional races went to a GOP candidate last year. This year, a Democrat won a special election in a Virginia Beach state Senate district that Youngkin had won by five points.

Where Youngkin has applied himself to Virginia issues, he has made a mark. He personally lobbied the leaders of public colleges and universities last year to hold the line on tuition increases, and it worked. In one of his most intriguing initiatives, Youngkin spearheaded an effort to marshal state resources to solve long-standing financial, public health and public safety problems in Petersburg, just south of Richmond.

U-Va. expected to heed Youngkin’s plea for flat tuition with rebate

It’s too early to judge whether the Partnership for Petersburg will bear fruit, but city officials consider it a victory just to get the attention.

As Youngkin enters his second year in office, though, he needs to demonstrate a record of accomplishment to go with his burgeoning political stature. Advisers say his first year has prepared him for the challenge.

“It’s pretty simple,” said Richard Cullen, Youngkin’s chief counsel and one of the few longtime Richmond hands in his inner circle. “He gets focused on the issues that got him elected … [and] he continues to press those.”

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By all accounts, Youngkin is a dedicated worker who starts early — staffers report getting texts as early as 5:30 a.m. — and takes a hands-on approach to gathering data, especially related to the state budget. The former co-CEO of the private equity giant Carlyle Group was said by insiders to have carried state budget documents with him everywhere as it was being prepared and personally crunched many of the numbers.

Youngkin also wears his Christian faith openly, beginning many administrative meetings by delivering a prayer.

His administration has been less accessible to the Capitol media corps than those of his immediate predecessors; Youngkin rarely grants sit-down interviews to local reporters, but will talk at length on conservative podcasts or to Tucker Carlson on Fox News.

In a 50-minute meeting at The Post shortly before this year’s General Assembly session got underway, Youngkin was clearly rankled by the suggestion that his political travels last year undercut his ability to govern.

“Maybe there’s a standard of how many hours people used to work,” he said, referring to previous governors, “but I take the whole week. And I’m not sure people fully appreciate how much ground we cover every week.”

He outlined what he saw as the major accomplishments of his first year in office, beginning with leading the state out of the pandemic shutdown. “Virginia had been locked down and was way behind on job recovery,” Youngkin said. Since then, he said, the state has added 85,000 jobs and attracted “some great companies,” including a major Lego manufacturing plant in Chesterfield and corporate headquarters for Boeing and Raytheon in Northern Virginia.

Youngkin also entered office with the rare benefit of huge budget surpluses. Like many other states, Virginia emerged from the initial years of the pandemic with faster-than-expected economic recovery as well as a pot of federal relief money. The combination allowed Youngkin to push for both tax cuts and spending increases, including pay boosts for both law enforcement officers and teachers.

The $4 billion package of tax cuts included one-time taxpayer rebates, a large increase in the standard deduction for personal income tax filers and the elimination of the state’s portion of the grocery tax. While most of that was actually part of the state budget proposed by former governor Ralph Northam (D) before leaving office, Youngkin had put the spotlight on the issue during his campaign.

Northam “tried to steal his thunder a little bit” by including the cuts in his budget, Holsworth said, but Youngkin “has to get credit for raising the tax issue.”

Asked for instances where his leadership pushed Democrats to act, Youngkin first cited the end of mask mandates in schools — which he achieved during his early weeks in office when a handful of Democratic state senators joined Republicans on the legislation.

Youngkin cast the issue not just as a policy dispute, but as a clash of world views. “I don’t think that [Democrats] thought that parents should be allowed to decide whether their children wear a mask or not. Fundamentally,” he said, then extended the comparison to other issues. “I don’t think that they thought that we should have a $4 billion tax package. I don’t think they believed that lab schools were going to be successful because they told me so. I don’t believe that they felt that we could run government better. I just think that they fundamentally disagree with the idea that there is an economy that is competitive every day and that if we don’t compete to keep people in Virginia, they’ll move someplace else.”

Lab schools are a still-unproven Youngkin priority. He got lawmakers to approve $100 million last year to explore the idea of partnering state colleges and universities to help run K-12 schools, but there is no money in the second year of the budget and no such schools have had time yet to take shape.

Youngkin claims credit for improving the performance of several areas of government, especially the Virginia Employment Commission, which was overwhelmed by unemployment applications from pandemic layoffs and built an enormous backlog of unprocessed claims. Much of that backlog has been cleared in the past year.

The Youngkin administration also takes credit for improving wait times at the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), though it has yet to secure someone to lead the department after asking the initial choice to withdraw over allegations of misconduct in a previous job.

There have also been stumbles with state agencies. Thousands of voter registrations submitted by the DMV got lost in the Department of Elections system last fall, causing local registrars around the state to grapple with thousands of late documents just before elections. Youngkin, who had vowed to improve “election integrity” if elected, blamed an out-of-date computer system.

Perhaps no issue has defined Youngkin’s administration more than schools. He rode an “empowering parents” campaign theme into office and has kept up the mantra, but its impact has been one of tone more than policy change. His early order banning critical race theory did not change the curriculum, which never included CRT. He shut down the “tip line” last year after receiving several hundred thousand comments but generating no apparent action by the administration in response.

Youngkin paints a bleak picture of Virginia schools, claiming that student achievement has declined amid a misguided push for equity. He’s been especially critical of a 2017 revision of K-12 accreditation standards that allowed students’ academic progress to count toward accreditation along with their test scores.

While Virginia schools consistently rank among the nation’s best, a report Youngkin’s education team issued in May contended that they are falling behind their peers in other states.

A Washington Post analysis of the report, however, suggested its use of data was misleading and found that Virginia students performed at least as well as or better than students nationwide over the past several years.

Youngkin found Democrats to be a willing partner last year in increasing school funding, though they nixed his efforts to create charter schools using public money. And when the administration weighed in on a mandatory seven-year review of public education standards for teaching history and social studies, its suggestions were criticized for mistakes and omissions — such as referring to Native Americans as the first immigrants and leaving out mention of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. until fifth grade.

Youngkin expressed regret over the initial draft and pledged that his appointees would go back to work and “get it right.”

Many Republicans have praised Youngkin for a focus on making government operate more efficiently. Sen. David R. Suetterlein (R-Roanoke), who often takes libertarian positions that break from GOP orthodoxy, noted that Youngkin last year signed one of his bills to restrict the governor’s powers, limiting emergency orders to 45 days unless the General Assembly signs off.

“Lots of candidates frequently claim that they’re against executive overreach, and then they get in the governor’s office and quickly use the pen to sign expansions of their own powers,” Suetterlein said. “Governor Youngkin is the rare executive that used the pen to sign legislation restoring checks and balances.”

But Democrats have been slow to work with Youngkin. Except for the mask mandate deal last year, Democrats have seldom shown an inclination to give him the benefit of the doubt — a stark contrast to 2018, when Northam, a longtime lawmaker who had many friends on both sides of the aisle, won compromise on Medicaid expansion with Republicans who controlled the House and Senate.

Members of the Black Caucus, in particular, have been wary of Youngkin. “He has continued to say things like he supports teaching the full history [in schools]. But every opportunity he gets, he just does just the opposite,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the Black Caucus. He cited Youngkin’s directives erasing the word “equity” from school policies and from the name of the state’s diversity office; instead of the office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Youngkin calls it Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion.

“It reminds me that words matter,” Bagby said. “But actions matter even more.”

What’s in a word? Youngkin takes aim at ‘equity’

That climate of mistrust could work against Youngkin this year as he tries to solidify his mark on state government. Politics gave the Republican some momentum last year after his narrow victory. This year, though, every member of the General Assembly faces fall elections, and on a new precinct map that is seen as tilting in Democrats’ favor. Coupled with the party’s strong performance in last year’s congressional midterms, Democrats are feeling emboldened.

Which creates a challenge for Youngkin to get things done in the legislative session that got underway Jan. 11. One sign of Youngkin’s uphill climb: his push for a 15-week ban on abortions, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. Democrats, who widened their lead in the state Senate with this month’s special election, have made it plain they won’t support any ban, and even Republicans have seemed leery of raising the issue after seeing it fuel Democratic victories last fall.

But Youngkin emphasized in the interview that he sees the stakes of what’s ahead — for himself and his party.

“I think the future of the Republican Party is clear. We’ve got to deliver,” Youngkin said. “And I’ve only been at this for a couple years, but people elect you to get things done. They don’t elect you to take us backwards. They elect you to take us forwards.”

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