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Between Trump acolyte and suburban dad: Inside the many faces of Virginia GOP’s Youngkin

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks with members of the press after early voting in Fairfax last month alongside his wife, Suzanne. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

RICHMOND — As a candidate for Virginia's highest office, Republican Glenn Youngkin has sidestepped or straddled many thorny issues — from the perennial flash points of abortion and guns to matters as fundamental as whether President Biden legitimately won the White House or the state's elections system can be trusted.

For all his shape-shifting, Youngkin has managed to run a tight race against the best-known gubernatorial candidate that Virginia has seen in nearly a half-century: Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor seeking a rare comeback in the lone state that bars its chief executives from serving consecutive terms.

If the polls are right, Virginians are narrowly split between the governor they know and this 6-foot-5 Mystery Date.

A 54-year-old former private equity executive at the Carlyle Group, Youngkin has spent 10 months and about $30 million wooing Virginians but ducking this question above all others: Who is Glenn Youngkin?

Is he a Trump “wannabe” and conservative social warrior, as his Democratic rival contends? Or a common-sense businessman and basketball dad who just wants to lower grocery bills, strengthen schools and boost the economy? An earnest political outsider with a steady moral compass? Or just another a stealthy pol trying to be all things to all people?

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Youngkin has managed, at various times, to come off as all those things. The mixed messaging could reflect a stylistic tug-of-war among advisers, who range from a hard-charging consultant to Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, to Virginia insiders who favor a softer sell.

It also mirrors the challenging politics of an increasingly blue Virginia, where statewide Republican candidates must appeal to moderates in the vote-rich suburbs as well as fervently pro-Trump Republicans in the countryside.

But what does it say about Youngkin himself?

His opponent has seized on it, calling him a phony.

“You just heard Glenn Youngkin introduce himself to Northern Virginia voters — and it was all an act,” McAuliffe said in their second and final debate in Alexandria last month.

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But with sometimes-soaring rhetoric, Youngkin casts himself not as a panderer to disparate slices of the electorate, but as a unifier reaching out to them all with a sincere desire to meet people where they are.

“From the farms of the Shenandoah Valley to the rivers of the Tidewater, from the hilltops of the Blue Ridge Parkway to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, this is the majestic inheritance that belongs to every single Virginian,” Youngkin told a cheering crowd the night he won the GOP nomination in May. “This is why we are in this race — for Virginians across the political spectrum to unite around our shared values.”

Some longtime Youngkin friends — including those who recoil at Trump’s politics — express tremendous faith in the guy they call “Yunk,” even if they don’t know just where he stands on some issues.

While the peculiar politics of the state and the moment may have forced Youngkin into some contortions, they vouch for the “natural leader” they’ve known since he was a lanky teen washing dishes and sinking baskets in Virginia Beach.

“I know he won’t let me down,” said Brad Hobbs, a friend since junior high who’s never been a big political donor but gave Youngkin’s campaign $200,000. “Policy-wise, honestly, we don’t agree on everything. . . . But I’m so tired of being let down on character.”

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Hobbs voted for Trump in 2016 and liked some of his pro-business policies. But he broke with him in 2017, when Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides of a deadly neo-Nazi rally and counterprotest in Charlottesville. Hobbs sees Youngkin as someone who could shepherd not just Virginia, but the nation, through such a crisis.

“If I could have put him in for Trump, he could have led our nation and he wouldn’t have tweeted that what happened in Charlottesville was okay,” Hobbs said. “He would have gone to [demonstrations for] George Floyd. He would have been everyone’s president. . . . And that’s the only thing I really know. I don’t really know everything else that he thinks or doesn’t think, but I know that.”

Flirting with darkest-red GOP

By all accounts a deeply religious and humble man, Youngkin — who started Holy Trinity Church, or HTC, out of his basement — opens campaign staff meetings with prayer. He has a “cuss jar” in his Falls Church headquarters that foul-mouthed staffers must pay into. But he’s also cheerful and unstuffy, coming off as more Boy Scout than Bible thumper.

Youngkin coached his four children in youth basketball and took it seriously — to the point of decking himself out in the official track suits of their namesake NBA teams. But when he wound up with two special-needs players on his roster one season, he insisted on giving them equal playing time. They didn’t win a single game.

“The ethics and fairness behind his approach to coaching were so apparent to everyone,” said Sharon Davis, who had a son on that team about a dozen years ago.

Yet Youngkin also can be an intense competitor. Whether on the basketball court, in the board room or on his honeymoon playing hand after hand of gin with his bride, he can be cutthroat in pursuit of a win. In his bid for the Executive Mansion, that’s meant flirting with the darkest-red corners of his party, including Trump’s false claim that Biden stole the 2020 election.

Youngkin’s vocal opposition to “critical race theory,” while often couched in language lauding the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., taps into white grievance in a way that’s unsettled some people who’ve worshiped alongside him at Holy Trinity.

“Everything he says he stands for as he campaigns feels like it fully contradicts the person he held himself out to be when I knew him,” said Melanie Dickson, a former vestry member and one of three who said they left the church or vestry over its handling of racial issues, including its initial silence on the death of George Floyd. “We don’t know if we were deceived then or if we’re being deceived now. I don’t know who the real Glenn Youngkin is.”

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Godfrey Gill, a Black D.C. native who attended Howard University before meeting Youngkin as a fellow classmate at Harvard Business School, has faith in Youngkin’s good intentions on race, recalling an episode from about four years ago.

Youngkin’s oldest child, Grant, had a basketball tournament in the aftermath of a police shooting or something similar — Gill couldn’t remember exactly what — that had raised racial tensions nationally. As Grant’s all-White team took on an all-Black squad, that strife hung in the air. Youngkin called Gill afterward.

“He was, like, ‘Look, man. This is a problem. Maybe you and I can engage people in a discussion about this stuff,’ ” Gill recalled.

They hashed out a plan to hold a one- or two-day, professionally led workshop — “sensitivity teach-ins” — for other CEOs, employees at their respective firms or others, Gill said.

“We interviewed a couple groups that would provide workshops,” he said. They had nearly inked a deal when Youngkin was named co-CEO of Carlyle and the project got set aside.

Asked how he squares his friend’s heartfelt outreach on race with his anti-CRT pitch, Gill, a Democrat, says only that his faith in Youngkin is unshaken.

“The Glenn I know is receptive and we’ve had multiple conversations around race,” Gill said. “He’s been a great man as long as I’ve known him. He’s consistent. He’s earnest. He’s loving, he’s fair. I leave it to Virginians to assess whether his politics are consistent with theirs.”

Ready to run

Youngkin made a fortune upward of $300 million over a long career at Carlyle, one of the world’s most influential private-equity firms. He had been co-CEO for less than three years when he suddenly walked away from that world — and more than $100 million in unvested stock options.

Two former Carlyle executives told The Post that Youngkin had a long-standing interest in public service and his departure in September 2020 was no surprise. Two other executives said Youngkin had appeared to bristle working alongside his hard-charging co-chief executive, Kewsong Lee. Youngkin had quietly explored a run for governor four years ago by consulting a few political insiders but quickly shelved the plan after his promotion.

Suzanne Youngkin nevertheless counts herself among those taken aback when her husband, who’d spent nearly his entire professional life at Carlyle, called it quits. He sprang the news on his wife while on a walk from their home to Great Falls Park one Friday afternoon, saying he was ready to leave and use his skills and energy somewhere else.

She recalls the moment in a campaign-trail comedy bit that has her suggesting he buy a midlife-crisis sports car instead. In truth, she was scared, hands shaking. Youngkin was not even certain what he was going to do next, with the governor’s race just a possibility.

Despite his claims of being a political newcomer, Youngkin was a hefty political donor before he got into the ring, giving more than $300,000 to various Republican congressional campaigns and committees in 2020 alone. He did not give to Trump — who endorsed Youngkin repeatedly after Youngkin won the GOP nomination in May — but in the past gave to presidential contenders Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney.

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The Youngkins and their four children live on what can only be called an estate a stone’s throw from Great Falls Park, with 31.5 acres of pasture, horses and riding arenas — all but the house taxed at a rate slashed 95 percent last year, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch first reported, after the Youngkins obtained an agricultural designation from Fairfax County.

From what is surely a well-appointed kitchen, Youngkin’s go-to snack is bologna, the humble staple of his economically unstable boyhood.

Youngkin’s late father, Carroll Youngkin, was a star basketball player at Duke who trained in accounting but lost or left job after job for reasons his son, even to this day, says he can only wonder at. Youngkin said his mother, Ellis Youngkin, who earned a Ph.D. in nursing, taught at the college level and co-wrote textbooks still in use, shielded him while struggling to keep the family afloat. She died in 2018.

Youngkin inherited his father’s height and athletic talent. The future gubernatorial contender reached 6-foot-6 by the time he was in the 10th grade. (Youngkin says he’s shrunk a bit and now stands at 6-foot-5; Rice University’s roster listed him as 6-foot-7.)

That helped him catch the eye of the basketball coach at private Norfolk Academy, which gave him a need-based scholarship for high school.

“It’s a pretty elite kind of private school,” said Doug Wetmore, who attended with Youngkin and worked elbow-to-elbow with him in the diner at the now-demolished Belvedere Hotel. Wetmore was still busing tables when Youngkin moved up to short-order cook.

“He’d bend over backwards to make a good impression on adults and it worked,” Wetmore said.

Youngkin was the star of Norfolk’s basketball team, leading them to a state championship. At Rice, Youngkin had the chance to play Division I ball in the competitive Southwest Conference. The downside was the Owls were in the midst of a 20-year slump.

Youngkin was not one of the better players. By conference standards, he wasn’t even that tall.

“It’s a real wake-up call for you when you recognize that maybe you’re not quite as good as you thought you were,” Youngkin said.

Riding the bench for a losing team, drowning in engineering homework, Youngkin considered chucking it all and going home. But he toughed it out.

“I really had a very serious moment where I was able to reflect on it, and knew that I was there for all the right reasons, and recommitted myself,” he said.

Though he never got much playing time, Youngkin prepared more than most, arriving for preseason workouts already in shape, said coach Scott Thompson.

After graduating with a double major in mechanical engineering and managerial studies, Youngkin stayed in Houston for a job in investment banking.

“I didn’t really know what it was for sure,” he said. “It’s not a world I grew up in, I’ll tell you that.”

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Two years later, he was on even more foreign terrain: Harvard. For once he did not have to juggle academics with basketball, but the business school was still daunting. He wondered on that first day, as students introduced themselves one by one in the classroom, how he’d come up with those who’d arrived with “great academic pedigrees, or were from overseas, or had served in the first Gulf War . . . and now they had come in literally [as] Air Force pilots and tank commanders. . . . People who had done amazing things — had written books — in there, and done research. . . . And I was a kid who had grown up taking out trash and washing dishes.”

He more than held his own, graduating in 1994 as a Baker Scholar, in the top 5 percent of the graduating class.

Not an easy middle

About a month before he headed to Harvard, a friend from Rice introduced Youngkin to Suzanne.

He was instantly smitten. She wasn’t sure about someone so big in size (she’s 5-foot-4) and personality, who hailed from notoriously nerdy Rice and did his best to make their first dates a series of intense Q&As.

“He was, you know, just probing, like, ‘What do you think about this?’ Or, you know, ‘Would you like to do this?’ or, ‘Have you ever dreamed about doing that?’ ” she recalled. “I was kind of like, ‘Oh, wait. Let’s just go get a margarita.’ ”

Youngkin eventually won her over and they married right after business school. Suzanne, who had been raised in a churchgoing family, only agreed after extracting a promise from Youngkin, who’d attended only on Christmases and Easters.

“She actually said, you know, ‘I really need to have our faith be in the middle of our marriage,’ ” Youngkin said. “I didn’t really fully appreciate the journey she was going to put me on.”

Youngkin made good on the promise through study and exploration, some of that self-guided, some through evangelical courses called Alpha. It was a long process, he said, one that continues.

“Faith is not a light switch,” he said. “We constantly have questions and you constantly wonder, ‘Well, why is that?’ Or, ‘How is that?’ Or, ‘How does this reconcile?’ And I think that’s part of the wonder of actually fully exploring your own relationship, in my case, with Jesus Christ.”

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Part of that journey involved establishing HTC, modeled after HTB, or Holy Trinity Brompton, an Anglican church the Youngkins attended while in London for Carlyle.

Intentionally light on doctrine to broaden its appeal, HTC quickly outgrew Youngkin’s basement. Within a decade it boasted a large, racially and ideologically diverse flock eager to worship free from the dogma of mainline churches — an approach some pastors describe as the “radical middle.”

But that middle hasn’t proven easy to straddle, in politics or in religion.

The lone Black member of the vestry blasted leaders of the nondenominational evangelical congregation — including Youngkin — for their silence on Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020, even as the church had offered prayers for Paris’s fire-ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral the year before.

“Your complicity with racism by hiding behind the concept of neutrality and being the radical middle is SIN and I will not be complicit with you in hand-wringing silence,” Wanda Jones-Yeatman wrote to the rest of vestry that June. “The place of neutrality communicates indifference to the black members of the body of Christ and the world.”

The letter prompted Youngkin and the rest of the vestry to hammer out a statement condemning racism — only to draw blowback from conservatives in the church and beyond, especially as Youngkin began pursuing the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

“A candidate in the GOP Virginia gubernatorial primary attends a Woke church,” read the headline in the conservative Capstone Report. “Glenn Youngkin: An SJW in Maga Clothing,” declared podcaster Jon Harris, using the acronyms for “social justice warrior” and former president Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

But to Hobbs, his high school teammate, the criticism is all just noise.

“A lot of people are even now saying, you know, ‘He seems just like Trump,’ ” he said. “I’m like, he’s not. I promise you, once he’s sitting at that desk, it will not be politics. When he sits down in that chair, I promise you, he will be there for every Virginian.”