The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin’s appointments raise questions about his ‘moderate’ label

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on July 9 at the Nebraska GOP state convention in Kearney, Neb. (Gregory Schneider/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Peter Galuszka is a Chesterfield, Va.,-based freelance writer.

It has been more than six months since Republican private equity executive Glenn Youngkin took over as Virginia’s governor. The tall, telegenic man dubbed a “mystery date” in the media is already making a stir for a presidential run in 2024.

He has visited places such as Nebraska to drum up support for a presidential try and has a political action committee that has raised at least $1.5 million for the cause. He has been a regular on national talk shows and has garnered positive print coverage as a conservative who can galvanize Donald Trump’s base without the crude style of the former president.

But if one looks at whom he chooses as his advisers, it’s enough to give anyone pause. They tend to be highly partisan, driven by hard-right ideology and given to a lot of gaffes.

One example is Colin Greene, whom Youngkin nominated as health commissioner. Greene has been known for making jarring statements that the state’s health care is bereft of systemic racism. The diminished health-care prospects for lower-income minorities have more to do with lifestyles than income levels or discrimination, he claimed.

His views were too much for the state Board of Health, which last month reprimanded him. Backing down, a contrite Greene apologized, saying, “Let me be clear: I am fully aware that racism at many levels is a factor in a wide range of public health outcomes and disparities across the Commonwealth and the United States.”

Another controversial appointee is Andrew Wheeler, whom Youngkin picked as his nominee for secretary of natural and historic resources. Wheeler had been a lobbyist for Murray Energy, a controversial coal firm in Appalachia, and was the Trump administration’s regulation-busting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

His nomination was a direct rebuke of efforts by the General Assembly to modernize its energy and environmental policies, especially in reducing carbon pollution through regional compacts and expanded renewable energy, such as offshore wind.

The General Assembly rejected him for the Cabinet post. Then Youngkin appointed him as a senior adviser and, later, as his point man for a policy initiative to reduce state regulation by 25 percent.

Virginia has been torn over the past several years about rethinking its Confederate past. Many memorials to Southern generals have been torn down. One would think that if Youngkin were to pick a state official to deal with these issues, it would be a person sensitive to the deep emotions and historical nuances involved.

Instead, he chose Ann Hunter McLean, a Richmond educator and historian, for the state Board of Historic Resources, which deals with such matters. McLean is on the board of the Jefferson Council, a group that tries to push its positive version of Thomas Jefferson. In her writing, she has blasted critics of displays of Confederate generals as “cultural Marxists.”

Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) said, “If there was any doubt that Governor Youngkin is an extremist, right-wing politician, here is another example of his inflammatory priorities in action.”

Gay rights are a sensitive topic for Youngkin, especially in light of how the Supreme Court’s rulings on abortion rights might affect same-sex marriage. He has waffled on the issue.

Youngkin had picked Casey Flores for the LGBTQ+ Advisory Board. He’s a member of the Log Cabin Republicans of Richmond. Flores was criticized for making sexual jokes on social media, notably about Vice President Harris. He promised not to do so anymore and then dropped out of the position. When Youngkin wanted to explore new legislation that would restrict abortion, he picked a like-minded Republican team.

For decades, Virginia had a go-along-to-get-along stance when it came to gubernatorial appointments. Less controversial people were appointed, and the General Assembly acquiesced, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

“What Youngkin is doing is very combative,” he said, noting that much of it is designed to get national attention and spots on Fox News. He describes it as “Washington’s invasion of Virginia politics.”

What’s curious is how Youngkin’s persona is unfolding. A little more than a year ago, he was an unknown entity with zero political experience. For years, he had been an executive at the Carlyle Group, a powerful Washington-based private equity firm.

In last year’s campaign, he played it both ways — pro- and anti-Trump. Now, he seems to be dashing very quickly to becoming a national player. That raises an important question: Who’s really behind him?