Businessman Glenn Youngkin was sworn in as Virginia’s 74th governor Saturday in Richmond, the first Republican to hold the post in nearly a decade.
“No matter who you voted for, I pledge to be your advocate, your voice, your governor,” Youngkin said in his inaugural address, delivering a message of unity that at times has been absent from the campaign. “Our politics have become too toxic. Sound bites have replaced solutions – taking precedence over good faith problem solving.”
But during his speech, the crowd was the loudest, and many stood up, when Youngkin spoke of “taking politics out of the classroom.” During the election campaign, he frequently spoke about the right of parents to say what is taught in school.
Two historic Republicans were also sworn in. Former state delegate Jason Miyares was sworn in as attorney general, the first Latino elected to a statewide office. And former state delegate Winsome Sears is now lieutenant governor, the first black woman to hold that title.
Youngkin is expected to start making his mark shortly after the inauguration by signing several executive orders. Some are likely to face legal challenges such as an order “ending the use of divisive concepts, including critical race theory, in public education.” The CRT, an academic legal framework focused on the causes of systemic racism, is not taught in Virginia schools and it is unclear whether the governor has the authority to unilaterally determine the school curriculum.
Another order removes Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, arguing it increases costs for consumers, but some legal scholars and outgoing Attorney General Mark Herring argue only the legislature can act on the issue. Youngkin also ordered an end to a mask mandate for public schools, removed state parole board members, and rescinded the vaccination mandate for all state employees.
Youngkin’s victory in November shocked Democrats who — after President Biden’s 10-point margin in the state — hoped former Gov. Terry McAuliffe would be able to return to the governor’s mansion and maintain the government’s stranglehold. left for a position currently held by outgoing Governor Ralph. Northham.
But Youngkin’s campaign drew large voters to rural Virginia and made inroads in the state’s suburban areas. The former private equity CEO called his lack of political experience an asset.
Along with taking control of all three statewide offices, Republicans also hold a 52-48 majority in the House of Delegates after flipping seven seats in the 100-member chamber. During their brief majority stint, Democrats raised the minimum wage, abolished the death penalty, expanded voting, and legalized marijuana.
Republicans hope to work with the new governor to roll back some of the more progressive elements of these new laws. But they will have to cajole or compromise with Democrats in the state Senate, where Democrats still hold a 21-19 advantage, with wider margins in key committees.
Youngkin will also face a problem he didn’t talk about on the campaign trail: figuring out how Virginia’s new marijuana industry will work. Democrats have legalized marijuana in small quantities, but the retail system has yet to be established.
Youngkin’s cabinet includes a mix of political newcomers as well as state and federal government veterans, including staffers who worked under former President Donald Trump. That includes nominee for natural resources secretary Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and administrator of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency who rolled back protections enacted by former President Barack Obama.
Wheeler’s nomination sparked an immediate outcry among Virginia Senate Democrats, who hope to block his nomination. Wheeler’s nomination fight could be a first test of Youngkin’s ability to navigate tricky political situations. Youngkin has so far ignored those protests, calling Wheeler “incredibly skilled” in an interview with member station VPM on Tuesday.
Northam, the incumbent Democrat, said he was unlikely to run again. He faced widespread calls to resign in February 2019 after reporters surfaced a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page. Northam ultimately denied he was in the picture, rescinded those calls and then signed sweeping policy changes pushed by Democratic majorities. The pediatric neurologist is expected to resume his consultations on Monday.
Ben Pavour covers state policy for member station VPM; Michael Pope works as a reporter for Virginia Public Radio.