The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin’s culture wars are good for him but bad for Virginia business

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in Alexandria February. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)
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Don L. Scott Jr., a Democrat, represents Portsmouth in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he is minority leader.

Thanks to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s leadership, Virginia is no longer the best state in America in which to do business.

CNBC’s 2022 list of “America’s Top States for Business” ranked Virginia third, behind North Carolina and Washington state. Early in his tenure, the governor has managed to topple Virginia from the No. 1 position it won in unprecedented back-to-back rankings under Democratic leadership. In 2021 — with a Democratic “trifecta” — Virginia held on to its No. 1 ranking while pulling the commonwealth up 27 spots in Oxfam’s report on the best states for workers. Democrats know that making Virginia work for its people is good for business, too. Unfortunately, Youngkin’s presidential aspirations have kept the governor laser-focused on culture-war issues that poll well among Republican primary voters in Iowa — not building the economy or supporting working Virginians. As CNBC’s business rankings highlight, leadership that makes Virginia a less welcoming place for workers makes it less welcoming to business, too.

Youngkin’s top priority as governor has been to erase equity from state government, and businesses are taking note. One of his first acts in office was to literally take the word “equity” out of the governor’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. He proceeded to set up a statewide snitch line for teachers who acknowledge race and racism. When Youngkin’s appointed health commissioner denied the impact of structural racism on infant and maternal health disparities and claimed that discussing racism “alienates White people,” Youngkin refused to take action. This spring, Youngkin vetoed a bill to study disparities in business that had previously passed the General Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support. It’s no wonder why Virginia’s score in CNBC’s “Life, Health, and Inclusion” category plummeted between 2021 and 2022. Even Lego was set to invest $1 billion in a new factory in Chesterfield — a deal begun during former governor Ralph Northam’s (D) term — recently revealed some trepidation over Youngkin’s stance on racial equity.

Next, with marriage rights under existential threat at the federal level, an unprepared Youngkin appeared on national television misquoting the Virginia Constitution and refusing to say whether he would act to codify protections for same-sex marriage. He has indicated on record that he does not personally support same-sex marriage. Another byproduct of buying into the anti-LGBTQ hysteria is that it’s bad for the economy. Last year, nearly 300 national companies signed on to a statement warning that anti-LGBTQ legislation would influence which states they decide to invest in. Nonetheless, all indications are that Youngkin will continue to pick his own political aspirations over the best interests of Virginians and Virginia’s economy. It’s no surprise, then, that “economy” was another CNBC category in which Virginia’s score has fallen since Youngkin took office.

Virginia also lost stature in 2022 with a lower “workforce” score. Besides publicly criticizing our community college system and cutting $20 million from his predecessor’s G3 “Get a Skill, Get a Job, Get Ahead” workforce development program, Youngkin has attacked Virginia’s workforce by threatening their bodily autonomy — and women are paying attention. Days before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Youngkin introduced a budget amendment to prevent low-income Virginians from accessing abortion care even with the most severe fetal diagnoses. The governor followed up the move by proposing a new abortion ban and promising to sign “any bill that comes to [his] desk” to restrict reproductive freedom. While my caucus in the legislature, along with Virginia organizers and activists, work to protect past progress on reproductive rights, Democratic governors in other states are looking to recruit businesses from states that would restrict their employees’ bodily autonomy, as Youngkin is hoping to do.

Democrats handed Youngkin record surpluses and a booming economy. Six months later, our growth is stalling as businesses reconsider whether they want to invest in a state whose governor is willing to defund its infrastructure and education system while alienating its workforce. The problem with Youngkin’s backward social agenda is that his positions are cruel and out of step with the will of most Virginians. It is simply the natural result that our economy and national reputation will suffer the consequences. But the governor doesn’t really care what happens to Virginia’s people or its economy because he isn’t that interested in Virginia; his sights are set on the White House.

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