Glenn Youngkin is the kind of person who, if you ask him if he knows how to nae nae, he’s going to take it as a challenge. On a Thursday afternoon in late April, the Republican governor of Virginia is touring CodeRVA, a diverse magnet high school for students interested in tech careers—the sort of place that Youngkin argues can be the linchpin of his conservative education agenda. Craig Butts, a 17-year-old senior, shows the governor his creation: a Super Mario-inspired video game that displays the relative sizes of the planets in the solar system. Then he slyly asks the question.
“Can I nae nae? No,” Youngkin confesses. Then he gets an idea, and his big, smooth, plasticky face lights up: “Can you show me how to nae nae?”
Politicians should know better than to dance in public, a rule that perhaps especially applies to a lanky 55-year-old white man in a neat suit and tie. Staffers groan; the first lady grimaces; the lieutenant governor cries out, “Don’t do it!” But Youngkin gamely plants his feet, raises a hand and executes a couple of hip-swivels as Butts gives an impromptu hip-hop dance lesson. Before moving on, Youngkin mutters the phrase that could be his signature: “How much fun!”
Affable, fun-loving, up for anything: It’s hard not to like Youngkin, a trait that accounts as much as anything for his sudden political celebrity. The previously unknown private-equity CEO burst onto the national political scene with his improbable win here last November. In a blue-trending state that went for President Biden by 10 points in 2020, and where Republicans had not won statewide since 2009, Youngkin not only prevailed but carried the whole GOP ticket with him, resuscitating his party in a place it had been left for dead.
His win was a beacon of hope for a national Republican Party still riven and nursing its wounds from the Donald Trump era. Consultants across the country buzzed about the “Youngkin Model.” Donors begged him to run for President. “He was the right candidate for the right time for us in Virginia as Republicans,” former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who represented a Richmond-area district, tells me. “He obviously spoke to the electorate in a way Republicans haven’t done in quite some time, and I think he is someone who has leadership qualities that could go national.”
Youngkin’s victory was a frustrating turn of events for Democrats who were sure Trump had trapped the GOP in an impossible double bind. Any Republican candidate who didn’t pledge fealty to the former President, the thinking went, would lose the support of the base. But voicing support for Trump would force them to answer for his lies and racism, rendering them toxic to independents and Democrats. Yet Youngkin was able to have it both ways, touting Trump’s endorsement while striking an altogether different tone. Despite Democrats’ attempts to tie him to the Jan. 6 insurrection and the deadly 2017 white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Youngkin’s share of the minority vote was unprecedented for a Virginia Republican: he won majorities of Asian and Hispanic voters, according to an exit poll conducted by Cygnal, as well as 27% of Black voters. He improved on Trump’s showing in the wealthy, highly educated D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia while simultaneously exceeding Trump’s margins and turnout in deep-red rural areas. “The truth is, Youngkin is not a Trumplike character at all—you can see it,” says the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato. “If Republicans can pull that off in other states, it is a blueprint, but it may not be transferable.”
The central issue of the campaign was education. Parents were restless after COVID-based school closures that lasted well into 2021 in many population centers, which the state’s Democratic leadership seemed to feel no particular urgency to address. The pandemic’s discombobulations intensified ongoing controversies over schools’ handling of gender and racial issues, the role of testing, and charter schools. Democrats have long been seen as the stronger party on education, but Youngkin turned the tables by highlighting local controversies and promising to give parents greater control—a message that especially resonated after his opponent, former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, said in a debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Now, as Youngkin tries his hand at governing for the first time, he has kept up the emphasis on education. He’s taken a series of aggressive actions—from making masks in schools optional to rooting out critical race theory—while simultaneously increasing funding and teacher pay. It’s a new, populist-conservative approach to the issue that Republicans hope could erode Democrats’ longtime advantage. Whether he pulls it off will determine whether he can succeed as a new kind of Republican and potentially usher in a partisan realignment. It also could make him a 2024 Presidential contender, something Republicans inside and outside his orbit see as increasingly likely.
That is, if Trump doesn’t get in the way. “What the Republican Party had been doing wasn’t working in Virginia, so we had to do something different,” Youngkin tells me, folding his 6 ft. 5 in. frame into the middle row of a black SUV as it pulls away from CodeRVA. “I needed to bring together the Forever Trumpers and the Never Trumpers. I campaigned in places that Republicans didn’t campaign. And if you go and listen to people—actually sit in their kitchens around the table and listen—what you find is, these issues around education, public safety, taxes, and a government that actually works for us—this is what all Virginians want.” All of that, he says, was more important to voters than any association with “some other political figure,” his habitual euphemism for Trump.
Still, I note, Trump remains the GOP’s undisputed leader, and has not been shy about enforcing his will on the party’s candidates and agenda. “You know, I so appreciated President Trump’s support,” Youngkin replies. “With great respect to everybody else, I’m the leader of the Republican Party in Virginia.”
At the state library and archive, a modern, light-filled building in central Richmond, a line of people await Youngkin—half of them Black tweens in T-shirts, the other half grown-ups in suits. The kids are students at the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where 95% of the student body is drawn from five surrounding housing projects, according to the principal. Youngkin is here to sign the Virginia Literacy Act, a bipartisan bill to standardize reading instruction in the early grades, collect and release data on literacy rates, and provide reading coaches to students who fall behind.
The legislation came about when Delegate Carrie Coyner, a Republican from a Richmond-area district, discovered that Virginia had been collecting reading data on kindergarteners through second-graders for decades, but not releasing it publicly. Coyner requested the data and was shocked to find that, in the fall of 2021, 42% of the state’s second graders were scoring below the reading benchmark. Some of the deficiency was clearly attributable to the pandemic. But even before COVID-19, the number was nearly 30%. Meanwhile, the commonwealth was spending tens of millions on remedial specialists who, the data showed, weren’t moving the needle.
Everything about the scene at the library communicates diversity, tolerance, concern for the disadvantaged—Youngkin’s hoped-for big tent. He’s introduced by Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, a Republican who is the first Black woman ever elected statewide, and who says education enabled her to pull herself up from poor single motherhood. “Our governor is also someone who came up from nothing,” she says. “And if he didn’t have a good education, young people, he wouldn’t have made it either.”
The principal, Inett Dabney, explains that the middle school has just one reading specialist for its 508 students, only one-third of whom are proficient in reading and three-quarters of whom are below grade level. “We shouldn’t need a reading specialist in middle school,” Dabney says. “We cannot continue to educate our students as business as usual.”
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This, Youngkin claims, was the state of Virginia’s education system when he came in: highly regarded but slipping, thanks in part to complacent leadership that preferred sweeping problems under the rug—and throwing good money after bad—to taking them on and solving them. “Virginians have spoken clearly. Parents have spoken clearly, that they want to have a say in their children’s education,” he says before signing both versions of the legislation, one from the majority-Republican House of Delegates, the other from the majority-Democrat state Senate.
It was this sense of control that Youngkin promised to restore to exhausted parents. After COVID-19 shuttered schools in the spring of 2020, Virginia left individual districts to make their own decisions about whether and how to reopen. Most rural districts did so that fall, but the urban and suburban districts that house most of the state’s population did not. In suburban Fairfax County—one of the country’s largest districts, with nearly 200,000 students—schools remained virtual until the spring of 2021, when they reopened for just two days per week of in-person instruction. The county’s teachers union successfully lobbied for teachers to be first in line for the COVID-19 vaccines—and still refused to come back to the classroom once they became available.
The school closures upended families and careers. Yet the Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, largely declined to weigh in, citing a preference for local autonomy. (Republicans charged it had more to do with not wanting to take on the teachers unions, an important component of the Democrats’ funding base.) Most local governments also punted, leaving school boards—generally part-time panels of little-known local activists—to handle some of the pandemic’s most difficult decisions.
The forced homeschooling that resulted in districts that went virtual also gave parents greater visibility into their kids’ classroom experience. And it coincided with school systems’ ongoing struggle to respond to issues of racial and gender identity. “Families were not okay with what had been happening in our schools over the past few years, and parents weren’t okay with the lack of options during COVID for their kids,” Coyner tells me. “When parents had to have virtual school in their homes, it opened their eyes to what was really happening in the classroom, and what wasn’t.”
Nowhere in Virginia, and perhaps nowhere in America, did this situation become more explosive than Loudoun County, an ultra-rich, horse-country D.C. exurb. The county’s long-simmering school-board conflicts drew national attention in June 2021, when a local father named Scott Smith attended a meeting of the local school board to try to get some answers. His daughter, a high school freshman, alleged that a male classmate wearing a skirt had sexually assaulted her in a school bathroom. The boy had moved to another school while authorities investigated. But when Smith spoke up at the June 22 meeting, the superintendent told him there was no record of an assault. Smith became distraught and started yelling and cursing. He was thrown to the ground by county sheriff’s deputies, dragged out, and arrested for disorderly conduct.
The video of the arrest went viral, portrayed out of context as an example of out-of-control conservatives attacking local officials for simply trying to do their jobs. The National School Boards Association included the incident in a September letter to the White House seeking federal assistance for the “growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation” over masking policies and “propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction and curricula,” which it described as “domestic terrorism.” Attorney General Merrick Garland promptly announced an investigation. Smith received a suspended sentence of 10 days in jail. In October, the boy who had allegedly assaulted his daughter committed another alleged assault at his new school, while wearing an ankle monitor, according to authorities.
Smith’s case became a cause célèbre on the right in part due to his claim that his daughter’s alleged attacker was wearing a skirt. The Loudoun County school board at the time was considering a controversial new policy on transgender students that would allow them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity and require teachers to use students’ preferred pronouns. The policy hadn’t yet been approved at the time of Smith’s daughter’s alleged assault, and Smith himself never claimed that his daughter’s alleged attacker was “genderfluid” or trans. But conservatives seized on it nonetheless.
These controversies engulfed a school board that was already struggling with racial issues. In 2019, a reenactment of the Underground Railroad at a Loudoun elementary school led to protests by the local NAACP, leading the school board to award a $500,000 no-bid contract to the California-based Equity Collaborative. (The independent journalist Matt Taibbi, who has reported extensively on the Loudoun fracas, obtained the contract through a public-records request.) Based on the resulting “audit,” the board issued a 14-minute video apologizing for racism, eliminated the standardized-testing requirement for the county’s selective high school, and mandated bias training for all employees. The training included materials such as a chart that sorted students into categories of “privilege” and “oppression,” and a cartoon video called the “Unequal Opportunity Race” that showed a relay race in which the white racers pass each other money while the Black and brown racers are prevented from finishing by obstacles. By the time of the school board meeting where Smith made his complaint, opposing groups of parents had been arguing about the new diversity curriculum for months. The conflagration drew coverage from Fox News to the New York Times.
For the right, “Loudoun” became a buzzword for out-of-control bureaucrats indoctrinating kids with extreme “woke” ideas. For the left, the situation represented the right’s opposition to progress and fixation on cultural bogeymen. But for many parents of all stripes, these overlapping controversies—over reopening, over masks, over trans issues, over race, over testing—contributed to a sense that school was no longer necessarily a safe place for their children, and that there was little they could do about it.
“The thing that ties it all together is the disdain for parental involvement,” says Rory Cooper, a Republican consultant whose three children attend Fairfax public schools. “If you watched a school board meeting in 2021, regardless of the issue, it was very clear that parents were not welcome in that room. It was ‘sit down, shut up, we’re the experts.’”
When Cooper’s kids’ elementary school resumed in-person instruction, children who’d missed years of socialization started getting into fights on the playground (where the monkey bars were covered in CAUTION tape), but parents who volunteered to serve as recess monitors were rebuffed. A Little League practice was interrupted by a “car parade” of teacher activists who’d decorated their vehicles with caskets, gravestones and fake blood. “We’re trying to help figure out how to get kids back to normal, and the schools seemed to be resisting parents at every turn,” says Cooper, an anti-Trump conservative who was part of a local parents’ group that advocated school reopening but stayed out of the culture-war issues. “Even when school was back five days a week, parents didn’t feel confident that their kids were in a positive learning environment. But the schools didn’t seem to care about taking any serious steps to reverse the harms of the last two years.”
Into this volatile stew of screaming parents, embattled officials and traumatized children parachuted Glenn Youngkin, a man who seems like he would no sooner threaten a local school-board member than he would shoot an elephant in the middle of Fifth Avenue. The former CEO of the Carlyle Group private-equity firm, Youngkin was a longtime donor to national Republican causes and candidates, though not Trump. He had never been particularly involved in Virginia politics. “We did our first poll in December 2020, and I had 2% name ID,” Youngkin tells me as we ride between events. “And the margin of error in the poll was 3%.”
Born in Richmond, Youngkin grew up on the precarious end of the middle class, with a mother who was a nurse and a father who was frequently unemployed. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Virginia Beach, and he washed dishes at a boardwalk restaurant to help make ends meet. Childhood friends describe him as effortlessly popular and mature beyond his years, the kind of kid who gets good grades, captains the team, and charms adults. “Usually, the best athlete on the team is a guy who’s cocky and hard on his teammates, but he’d put his hand on your back and let you know he supported you,” says Brad Hobbs, a lifelong friend, top campaign donor, and former teammate on the state championship basketball team at the private school Youngkin attended on a need-based scholarship.
Youngkin got a Division I basketball scholarship to Houston’s Rice University, which he decided to attend in part because of its proximity to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. He’d always dreamed of going to space, and wrote his senior engineering thesis about a lunar space station. In college, however, both of his career dreams died: he was too tall to be an astronaut, and didn’t have what it took to play pro ball. After graduation, he attended Harvard Business School, then went on to a 25-year career at Carlyle, a Washington-based leveraged-buyout firm. Youngkin helped take the company public, ascended to co-CEO, and amassed a fortune of about $470 million, according to Forbes.
Youngkin had not been particularly devout before he met his wife of 28 years, Suzanne, a Texan who made serious Christianity a condition of their marriage. (From the start, she knew being married to him would be an adventure, Suzanne Youngkin tells me: as part of their premarital counseling, they took a personality test that showed him as “just off-the-charts extroverted.”) The couple raised four children in the leafy D.C. suburb of Great Falls and originally attended a mainstream Anglican parish, St. John’s Episcopal, in nearby McLean. But as the Episcopal Church fractured over gay marriage and women’s ordination, many congregations parted ways with the denomination. The Youngkins left St. John’s and started a new, unaffiliated parish in their basement in 2010. Holy Trinity Church—which now has its own building thanks to an $11 million donation from the Youngkins—melds Anglican traditions with charismatic evangelicalism. One liberal critic, the religious historian Diana Butler Bass, has described the resulting ethos as “right-wing social activism based on a nostalgic longing for a Christian America and elite Republican social mores.”
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When Youngkin entered the gubernatorial race, it looked like a steep uphill battle. He joined a crowded field of better-known contenders vying for the nomination in a complicated convention process. The format—which continued to change for months as state GOP officials feuded—gave his consultants fits and forced the campaign to be creative. “From March until May, every day was a new deadline,” says Youngkin’s campaign strategist Kristin Davison.
It helped that Youngkin poured tens of millions of his personal fortune into the effort. When the state convention rolled around in May—a ranked-choice vote held simultaneously in 39 locations—Youngkin’s was the only campaign to equip each of its delegates with a kit containing food, a water bottle, a hat, a sign, and a set of written instructions. After 12 hours of counting, Youngkin clinched the nomination in the sixth round of balloting. Trump, who had not taken a position on the primary, endorsed him the next day.
In the general election, Youngkin was a vigorous and disciplined campaigner who could be difficult to pin down on the issues. He didn’t admit that Biden had won the presidency until after the GOP primary, and was caught on a secret recording telling activists he had to be coy about his position against abortion rights in order to avoid alienating suburbanites. Davison says the campaign was careful not to “run a primary race that would lose a general election.” For example, Youngkin expressed enthusiasm for the Second Amendment but didn’t seek the NRA’s endorsement. “That was one of those issues that made people in Northern Virginia uncomfortable, so we didn’t want to lock ourselves into positions that the Democrats could hit us over the head with in the fall,” Davison says.
Youngkin’s campaign saw potential in the education issue early on. His first post-convention campaign stop was at the Loudoun County school board. He called Scott Smith and thanked him for standing up. Then, at a Sept. 28 debate, McAuliffe made his soon-to-be-infamous gaffe opposing parental input—a sound bite that Youngkin would feature in numerous ads.
Throughout the campaign, Democrats insisted Youngkin was Trump in sheep’s clothing, and that the educational issues he spotlighted were grievance-mongering myths—particularly critical race theory, a phrase the right has adopted as shorthand for equity-based diversity dogma. Liberals and many in the media dismissed CRT as a graduate-level legal theory that they insist is not taught in K-12 schools, rather than grapple with the legions of examples of children across the country being taught racial essentialism from the earliest grades. In January, for example, a high-school English class in Fairfax County played a game of bingo titled “Identifying Your Privilege,” with spaces including white, male, cisgender, Christian, “Feel safe around police officers,” and “Military Kid.” (There are, of course, absurdities and outright racism on the other side of the debate as well. Youngkin made a campaign ad featuring a white mother complaining about the “explicit material” her child had been subjected to; it turned out her son, a high-school senior, had been assigned Toni Morrison’s Beloved.)
Where previous generations were taught that America’s highest ideal was equality—the land of immigrants where all have the same rights and opportunities, at least in theory—nowadays many public schools, believing the races are ineluctably locked in hierarchies of privilege, instruct students to look inward and be chastened by considering their own unearned advantages. Even policies that are neutral or color blind on paper are by definition racist, in this thinking, if they produce inequitable results. Many of the country’s most prestigious schools have eliminated testing for admission based on the disputed claim that the tests are biased—including the public high school ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Alexandria, Va., where test-based admission had produced a student body that was more than 70% Asian. The state did away with the test, provoking a revolt and lawsuit from Asian parents. Similar controversies have recently unfolded in cities such as Boston and San Francisco, where they helped inspire the recall of several school-board members this spring.
The push for equity was especially aggressive in Virginia, where, in early 2019, Northam, a doctor from the rural Eastern Shore, admitted having worn blackface in his youth after a decades-old racist yearbook photo surfaced. Rebuffing calls to resign, Northam instead devoted the remainder of his term to championing racial progress, prompting the New York Times to declare him “the most racially progressive governor in the state’s history.” His efforts included appointing the country’s first cabinet-level diversity, equity and inclusion officer and pushing a top-to-bottom reevaluation of educational standards and outcomes. Under one proposal, critics charged, advanced high-school math classes would have been eliminated in the name of racial justice. (The proposal was never implemented.) The state’s EdEquityVA plan was intended, it said, to “affirm our commitment to dismantle any and all forms of inequity in Virginia’s public education system.” It recommended “anti-racist” resources including Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and the textbook Foundations of Critical Race Theory in Education.
It was this sort of thing, Youngkin says, that he hoped to root out—the erosion of standards in the name of leveling the playing field, the sorting of students into groups based on their race. “Let’s teach all of our history, the good and the bad,” he tells me, repeating a mantra from the campaign. “Let’s not run from it—let’s run to it. But let’s not say someone is inherently racist. We’re not going to have privilege bingo in the classroom. And we can do both of these things.” Liberals might argue that trying to teach the realities of race in America without interrogating systemic racism creates an unresolvable tension. But for parents of all races exhausted by the fraught debate, and feeling gaslit by the left’s insistence that it didn’t exist, this sounded like a sane middle ground. Youngkin “figured out how to harness the energy,” says Tucker Martin, an unaffiliated Richmond-based Republican consultant, “without being harmed by the energy.”
In the final weeks of the campaign, Democrats sent in their biggest guns to drive up turnout. Former President Obama decried “phony trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage that right-wing media peddles to juice their ratings.” President Biden warned, ”Extremism can come in many forms. It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol; it can come in a smile and a fleece vest.” McAuliffe aired an ad tying Youngkin to Jan. 6, and the anti-Trump Lincoln Project sent staffers in red hats carrying tiki torches to a Youngkin event in an attempt to remind voters of the Charlottesville riot. Democrats exulted when, in October, Trump called into a “Take Back Virginia” event headlined by his former adviser Steve Bannon, at which attendees pledged allegiance to an American flag carried by Capitol rioters on Jan. 6. (Youngkin, who was not in attendance, promptly issued a statement calling the gesture “weird and wrong.”)
“As much as the Democrat Party and progressives try to paint him as an extremist, it takes two minutes in his presence to realize that’s just not true,” says Youngkin’s Secretary of the Commonwealth, Kay Coles James, the Black former president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “One of the things that attracted me to Glenn Youngkin was he was one of the few politicians that talked about matters of race in terms that were compelling and compassionate, and with zero desire to hide history. Republicans have handled these issues poorly in the past. We can tell the truth about what happened in this country—all of it—without blaming or trying to make people feel guilty. I don’t know why that’s so hard for people to grasp.”
Upon taking office in January, Youngkin issued a set of education-focused executive orders. First, he decreed that parents, not local officials, should get to decide whether their children wear masks to school. Second, he ordered an investigation into “divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory” in public schools, and set up a dedicated email address for parents to report objectionable incidents. Third, he ordered the attorney general—Republican Jason Miyares, the first Latino elected statewide—to investigate the controversies in Loudoun.
To Democrats, this registered as aggressive and extreme. Youngkin was removing mask mandates at a time when the Omicron wave was cresting; some schools were having trouble operating because so many teachers were out on quarantine. The “divisive concepts” order suggested to opponents that Youngkin was doubling down on the culture wars, in contravention of his inaugural vow to “bind the wounds of division” and “find common cause for the common good.” The email inbox was branded a “tip line” for “snitches” to tattle on their kids’ poor, beleaguered teachers, and pranksters pelted it with jokes and pornography. When Youngkin, dissatisfied with the pace of reform in Loudoun, later proposed changing state law to put all nine school-board members on this November’s ballot, in addition to their normal staggered, odd-year elections, Democrats charged he was meddling with the democratic process to score political points. One state legislator compared the governor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and even a Republican voted against it, killing the measure.
“If you roll back the tape to when he was campaigning, the image he portrayed, a lot of Virginians now feel they didn’t know who the real Glenn Youngkin was,” says Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn, the Democrats’ former state House leader. “He has shown his extreme agenda from the very first day.” Filler-Corn described the “divisive concepts” order as “really trying to take a step back and basically whitewash history, stoking fears over ‘critical race theory,’ whatever that is—does it even exist?” She does not see Youngkin’s election as any sort of bellwether. “A lot of things nationally played a role,” she tells me. “We were just faced with historic headwinds.” (In April, fellow Democrats abruptly removed Filler-Corn as their leader in the House amid recriminations over the 2021 campaign.)
Democrats cite not just Youngkin’s education policies but also some inside-baseball procedural moves as proof he’s not the uniter he claims to be. After the Democratic Senate blocked his appointment of former Trump EPA chief Andrew Wheeler to a position in Virginia’s Cabinet, Youngkin retaliated by trying to block more than 1,000 pending appointments made by Northam to state boards and commissions, including the state Teacher of the Year. (He later mostly relented.) He then signed only the House versions of six bipartisan measures while vetoing the Senate versions, all of which happened to have been sponsored by the Democratic Senator who’d blocked Wheeler’s appointment.
“He’s pleasant enough,” Democratic Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who co-sponsored Coyner’s literacy bill, tells me. “But, you know, he has picked some fights unnecessarily.” McClellan described such moves as rookie mistakes that made it harder to reach across the aisle, and said Youngkin has been less engaged with legislators than his predecessors in both parties. Despite a $14 billion state surplus, Youngkin and the legislature were deadlocked for months over the budget, as Democrats opposed his bid to suspend the commonwealth’s gas tax and Youngkin insisted they were playing politics to deny him a win.
On June 21, Youngkin signed the budget agreement legislators had negotiated, which passed both houses by broad bipartisan margins. He did not get his gas-tax holiday, but he got more than $4 billion in tax cuts, including a near-doubling of the standard income-tax deduction and a partial elimination of the grocery tax. Democrats also got a tax rebate for low-income families that they had long sought. The two-year budget gives teachers a 10% pay raise, increases police and university funding, and is the largest education budget in state history, adjusted for inflation. “It’s absolutely a win for him,” says House Speaker Todd Gilbert, a Republican from a rural Central Virginia district.
Gilbert praises Youngkin for not backing down from the sensitive issues he promised to address in the campaign. “A lot of us have been pleasantly surprised by his engagement on things that other people might shy away from—issues of cultural sensitivity,” Gilbert tells me. “On topics around our public schools especially, sometimes you see politicians disengage on tough issues when the election is over, but he has not done that. He realizes that how he got here was by speaking truth on very difficult issues that caused people to shriek on the other side.”
Youngkin’s “tip line” has not led to a new era of teacher McCarthyism. The state’s history curriculum continues to include robust discussion of Virginia’s Indigenous history, slavery and its role in causing the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, and racism in America. (Disclosure: my three children attend Virginia public schools.) To the chagrin of some on the far right, Youngkin has not moved to reinstate the many Confederate statues and place names that Virginia has removed in recent years. The mask-optional order was met with outcry and lawsuits when Youngkin issued it, but the controversy cooled when, a few weeks later, the Democratic governors of New Jersey and Delaware also lifted their school mask mandates. In February, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed, changing its guidance to no longer recommend masks be required in K-12 schools in areas with lower COVID levels.
Youngkin’s position on masks had quickly become bipartisan and mainstream. But at the time, he had appeared to be stepping out on a limb, and I ask whether he worried things could go the other way. “I never felt we were doing something that was risky,” Youngkin says, because of the scientific evidence. “What I felt was that for every child, the decision was unique, and parents should be empowered to make that decision. And I did feel that there was a real moment where common sense prevailed.”
Youngkin finishes his day at UTurn, a faith-based sports academy and nonprofit incubator in inner-city Richmond. The air is thick with the smell of sweat and the sound of ricocheting basketballs as he perches on a high chair, flanked by his wife and Calvin Duncan, a pastor and former local basketball star. He’s here to celebrate his first 100 days in office, and his staff has prepared a snazzy highlight video, but Youngkin declares he’d rather listen than talk and throws it open to the small audience for Q-and-A.
This quickly proves to be a mistake, as a more experienced politician might have expected. The questioners include an anti-vaxxer grateful that Youngkin lifted the state’s mandates, a constituent concerned with declining masculinity in society, and a woman with a grievance against a local judge. Youngkin listens patiently to their diatribes, none of which have much to do with the policy agenda he’s here to tout.
Critics argue the governor has been more lucky than good. He barely won the election thanks to an unusually structured primary and a favorable political climate. As governor, fortune continues to favor him. Unemployment in Virginia is just 3%. Covid is receding from the public mind. The state is flush with cash. As time goes on, Youngkin will be forced to take sides on other divisive issues: in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, Youngkin has called for Virginia to ban abortions after 15 weeks except in cases of rape, incest or maternal life risk. “I think in his own mind he recognizes how lucky he had to be to win,” UVA’s Sabato says. “The basic disconnect is just that his views really don’t fit the new Virginia.”
Like many political observers, Sabato believes Youngkin is angling for a presidential run, and a member of Youngkin’s inner circle tells me the conditions look increasingly favorable: “The rest of the potential field has a brash Trump style,” the adviser says. “Republicans need a new Reagan. Donors, insiders and increasingly Republican primary voters are coming to this realization.” On the other hand, when I asked Youngkin about such speculation, he professed to be flattered but said, “I’ve signed up for four years, and I’m going to do my job for four years”—a pledge that would preclude him from running in 2024.
Youngkin argues he’s earned his constituents’ support by promising to solve problems that Democrats would prefer to pretend don’t exist. Over the past year, numerous Democratic partisans have insisted that inflation was fleeting, that school closures and masking weren’t harming children, and that rising crime is an illusion. Virginia has a dysfunctional department of motor vehicles, a corrupt parole board, an employment commission with a massive backlog and hundreds of millions in misspent funds. Public schools that got rid of police officers in the name of criminal-justice reform now deal with daily fistfights. Murders increased 23% in 2020, while law-enforcement agencies struggle with recruitment. It’s time, Youngkin says, to stop squabbling over whether these issues are real, and start solving them instead.
“Let’s shine a bright light on our problems and run into the light,” Youngkin tells me. “I see that on a lot of fronts right now, where there’s been decisions that were made to not actually run to the light on many challenges. We’ve just got to go address this and stop arguing about whether there’s a problem or not. We know there is. We know there’s a problem in literacy in K through third grade. We know that the murder rate is going up. And I just think this is a moment for us to take action, as opposed to stand around and figure out how to cast blame.”
As the cranks tire of venting and the 100 Days event nears its end, things suddenly take a different turn—one that seems to illustrate Youngkin’s inroads with minority voters and Democrats’ slipping hold on the diverse and religious working class. Bishop Joe Chase, a well-connected pastor and broadcaster, rises and takes the mic. He and his wife own a Black radio station in the Hampton Roads region, the heavily Black and military community that includes Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Chase says his community has been surprised by the governor’s engagement. “The conversation that I’m hearing now—even though we may not agree on everything, even though we may disagree with some of your politics—the conversation that I’m hearing is that you’re a man that can be trusted,” Chase says.
At the end of the event, Chase and four other Black pastors surround the Youngkins. They form a circle, laying hands on each other’s shoulders and bowing their heads. “Governor Youngkin and his wife, they love the Lord,” says the Reverend Joe Ellison, who has a shiny bald pate and a big white beard. “Jesus Christ is not Black. He’s not white. He’s not a Baptist or a Methodist, a Republican or a Democrat. He’s King of Kings and Lord of All.” The circle sways, eyes shut in devotion.
With reporting by Julia Zorthian
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