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Opinion Glenn Youngkin’s awful first moves are already sparking a rebellion

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). (Steve Helber/AP)
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Glenn Youngkin pulled off a remarkably clever trick en route to becoming the first Republican governor of Virginia in almost a decade. He energized supporters of Donald Trump but kept those appeals under the radar, while running as a center-right businessman-turned-politician offered up in what has become his trademark “cheerful suburban dad” packaging.

But this balancing act is already facing its first big governing test. How Youngkin manages it will be highly illuminating with regard to how much space there is inside the GOP for a politics that isn’t relentlessly shaped around the preoccupations and pathologies of Trumpism.

In the coming days, one of Youngkin’s first big moves will likely face a sustained legal and political challenge. Youngkin just rolled out a new executive order that ends masking requirements in schools, instead stating that any parent can opt out without providing a reason.

But numerous Virginia school districts immediately announced that they will continue requiring masks in accordance with previous policy. Some said they will remain aligned with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) delivered his first address to the Joint General Assembly in Richmond at Virginia’s State Capitol on Jan. 17. (Video: The Washington Post)

As of now, school districts in counties with a total of several million people in population have indicated they will likely continue the mask requirement in the face of Youngkin’s executive order. These include Fairfax, Henrico, Prince William, Arlington and Loudoun.

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“We will fight it to the end,” Jason Kamras, the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools, told me.

What makes Youngkin’s move particularly ugly is that he’s hinting he’ll follow the path of fellow Republican governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. DeSantis threatened to withhold funding from school boards that kept mask requirements in defiance of his effort to bar them and sought to punish them in other ways.

Youngkin is making similarly menacing noises. He vows to “use every resource within the governor’s authority” to force school districts into compliance, while piously insisting it’s time to “listen to parents,” as if all parents monolithically want an end to mask requirements and only school boards want them.

But Youngkin’s effort to paint school districts as power-mad bureaucrats trampling on the rights of parents is running headlong into a counterargument: Though the legal issues here are complex, the school districts might have the law on their side, and Youngkin might be the one abusing his power.

Youngkin’s stance might be legally vulnerable

Here’s why: As some of the school districts continuing mask requirements argue, a state law passed by the General Assembly and signed by the former governor may well require them to implement mask requirements.

That law requires school boards to adhere “to the maximum extent practicable” to strategies protecting schoolkids from covid-19 that have been “provided” by the CDC. As it happens, the CDC does advise universal masking in schools and backs up this position by citing various studies showing that such policies are effective.

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“I believe we’re required by the law to have masks," Kamras told me.

“We have consulted our legal counsel and feel it’s our obligation to abide by state law,” added Amy Cashwell, superintendent of Henrico public schools, vowing to keep following CDC guidelines for mask requirements.

If this law does require school boards to implement such universal masking, Youngkin’s executive order might not have any force, and might be vulnerable to a court challenge, says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

“People who favor mask mandates are going to make that argument,” Tobias told me, noting that a court may well decide that existing law is controlling, and that a “new governor can’t undo that by executive order without asking the legislature to amend that statute.”

So Youngkin’s executive order might not even survive legal scrutiny, which makes it even more galling that he’s posing as the scourge of power-abusing school boards. It’s probably only a matter of time until his order is challenged, Tobias says, and this will have to be settled by the courts.

‘A real Ron DeSantis move’

But whatever is to be on that front, Youngkin faces an immediate choice: When it comes to school boards that want to continue mask requirements, will he take the DeSantis route and try to bulldoze them into compliance?

DeSantis is emerging as the face of the future Trumpified GOP in part precisely because he has so aggressively moved to block local school and community leaders from taking measures they see fit to protect their own constituents, including schoolchildren.

While Youngkin did attack covid-19 mandates during the campaign, he often seemed to signal that he’d carry forward a less Trumpy and more conventional center-right politics. One model might be another GOP governor, Larry Hogan of Maryland, who has left the school mask mandate question to local leaders, which seems more in keeping with the sort of center-right conservatism that idealizes local control of schools.

If so, depending on how the court battles go, one possible endgame might be that red areas would suspend their mask requirements while bluer areas that want to keep them would do so. But it’s an open question whether Youngkin is already feeling pressure from the new currents surging through the GOP to go full DeSantis.

“Is he going to be a Ron DeSantis or a Larry Hogan?” asked Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist based in Virginia. “This is a real Ron DeSantis move.”

Those who see in Youngkin a future standard-bearer for a GOP that is not beholden to Trumpian political pathologies should hope that he reconsiders.