The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Glenn Youngkin won as a pragmatic conservative. How will he change Virginia policy?

Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) speaks to the media at the Governors Mansion at the Capitol in Richmond on Nov. 4. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
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Glenn Youngkin has accomplished the easy part of his political odyssey by winning his governor’s race and leading the victory-starved Republican Party on a convincing Election Day sweep in Virginia last week.

In about two months, the hard work of governing — transforming campaign promises into public policy — begins for the former hedge fund executive who has never held elective office.

What he will learn quickly is that he is governor, not emperor, and that navigating legislation around the often-dangerous shoals of the General Assembly requires patience, experience and compromise, even with members of your own party — sometimes especially with members of your own party.

Twenty years ago, Mark R. Warner, another wealthy businessman with no government experience before becoming governor, needed two years to learn that the worlds of business and government are very different. His most productive years were his final two, in which he was able to pass a tax increase yet leave office with an 80 percent job-approval rating, still the highest since The Post has polled on gubernatorial approval.

In Youngkin’s favor is a House of Delegates where the GOP will have a two-seat majority won in Tuesday’s election. More difficult to navigate will be the Senate, where Democrats still hold a 21-19 majority and whose leaders can use their control of the Senate’s committees and the daily floor calendar to apply brakes to the governor’s agenda. But even there, Youngkin will have a new Republican lieutenant governor in Winsome Sears, who will break tied floor votes, and a few moderate Democrats who occasionally side with the GOP.

In the 2021 regular legislative session, for example, Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) sided with the GOP on one-third of the votes against a majority of his own caucus, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Sens. Joe Morrissey of Richmond and Creigh Deeds of Bath County broke with most fellow Democrats on about one of every five floor votes.

Without complete Democratic unity, Youngkin and the GOP can prevail, particularly on issues such as abortion, where Petersen and Morrissey are pro-life. Youngkin made it clear in a secretly recorded video over the summer that he planned to “go on offense” if elected with a Republican House majority. Though Youngkin said he disapproves of the new Texas antiabortion law, the GOP could undo recent Democratic laws that eliminated waiting periods and ultrasounds for women seeking abortions.

Youngkin may also find cooperation on some of his education initiatives, particularly regarding pandemic-inspired masking mandates for students and parental review of curriculum, an issue that became a major focus of his campaign in its final month. He promised to ban the teaching of critical race theory, which is not part of the state’s Standards of Learning nor is it in any Virginia school district’s curriculum.

The GOP may find the Senate cooler to the idea of rolling back Democratic climate change laws that require electric utilities to stop burning coal in just three years and to eliminate carbon completely by the middle of the century. Petersen has sponsored and supported conservation and clean-energy measures.

He will find budget and finance issues more complicated, protracted and thorny.

Youngkin pledged to eliminate or reduce taxes, including the state tax on groceries, the recent state gasoline tax increase and the state income tax on veterans’ benefits. He also proposed doubling the standard income tax deduction for individuals. Youngkin justified it by pointing out a record $2.6 billion state budget surplus this year, attributing it to excessive taxation, though much of it was nonrecurring federal pandemic relief money. With an economy still struggling with the effects of the pandemic, legislative money committees will closely examine the new administration’s spending priorities and revenue assumptions with an eye to how they will affect the state’s fiscal stability.

The new governor can take some unilateral actions. He has considerable authority to carry out his promise to swiftly replace the Parole Board, which drew heavy criticism for its release of convicted killers from life prison terms because of the risk of the coronavirus with inadequate notice to victims’ families. He can also modify or rescind Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) mandates, particularly coronavirus vaccination and testing requirements for certain state workers.

Governors also advance policy goals and even perpetuate them beyond the one, nonsuccessive term Virginia allows them by appointing partisans and supporters to fill hundreds of state boards and commissions vacancies.

As with all new governors, there’s a learning curve, and Youngkin’s first lesson in changing Virginia law is that while the governor proposes, the General Assembly disposes.