Virginia’s Republican Governor Youngkin: Trump in Sheepskins

Photograph Source: Office of Congressman Gerry Connolly – Public Domain

Glenn Youngkin was very much a stealth candidate when he ran to become Virginia’s governor. He had never sought electoral office before— not even municipal dog catcher in district X.

Moreover, he said hardly a word about his sketchy corporate past, beyond declaring he had been a “financier” or worked in “the financial sector”. Of course these designations cover a myriad of types—from jailed junk bond kings in the 1980s, to creators of slash-and-burn “financial instruments” behind the 2008 crash (who escaped jail, how times change), to bankers who oversee the provision of microcredit for the poor. Youngkin is definitely not among the latter.

Youngkin took office as Virginia’s governor on 15 January. Two days later he gave his inauguration speech. Here are some key points from Youngkin’s address:

+ Tax cuts, education, employment

The immensely wealthy Youngkin eyed Virginia’s higher-than-expected revenues, and said he would deliver a package of tax cuts.

“We shouldn’t misconstrue record revenue for government as economic success for Virginians. The view from the people, whose labor generates those tax receipts, is quite different than the talk in Richmond”.

He then outlined his priorities: suspending the most recent 5-cent increase to the gas tax; eliminating the state’s grocery tax; doubling the standard deduction in the state’s income tax; and offering a tax rebate of $300 for individuals and $600 for families.

While these cuts might ensue in modest individual gains, experts say they would cut essential services that many Virginians rely on. Most of the revenue from the gas tax increase passed in 2020 was directed to 2 funds that finance the maintenance and construction of roadways in Virginia— Youngkin’s initiative will lead to more congested roads.

Most of grocery-tax revenue, 80%, is split between supporting K-12 education and local governments. The remaining 20% is directed towards transportation.

If that funding is cut, it is estimated that K-12 education and transportation initiatives in Virginia will each lose $227m in revenue annually. Transportation revenue will also lose about $114m if the grocery tax-cut is approved.

Youngkin also drew attention to his education agenda, which is largely an exercise in smoke and mirrors.

He promised to raise academic standards and end teaching based on “inherently divisive concepts” related to race and the nation’s history with racism.

Youngkin said “we should not be teaching our children to see everything through the lens of race”, underlining complaints by rightwingers that schools are too focused on racism and inequity in their curricula.

Youngkin, in one of his first acts as governor, removed the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion section of the Virginia governor’s website. He announced that Heritage Foundation policy adviser Angela Sailor has been appointed as the Commonwealth’s new director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, adding that he will introduce and back legislation to change the name of the office to the Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion Office.

He also signed an executive order within hours of taking office that banned the teaching Critical Race Theory from schools, even though it is not taught in Virginian schools.

Youngkin made it clear in his election campaign that his aim is to focus on “cooperation”, as opposed to “division”, between races. Given that the latter has been the cornerstone of this country’s foundation and development, an insistence on the former will only serve to soften or occlude severely the latter’s baleful place in shaping US history.

That of course is precisely the aim of Youngkin and his rightwing supporters.

Those who are against this rightwing softening or occlusion—such as supporters of BLM or those who seek an adequate recounting of slavery in school textbooks– can then be dismissed as “troublemakers” or a shit-stirring minority.

Youngkin also urged lawmakers to recall a bill that would have required schools to notify parents of any “sexually explicit content” in teaching materials, and to provide an alternative.

Youngkin called on lawmakers to pass legislation expanding privately run but publicly funded schools (taking a leaf from the page of Betsy DeVos), calling for $150 million to help his administration’s goal of starting 20 new charter schools. This will of course line the pockets of Republican donors eager to milk the education system.

At the same time, Youngkin wants more parental control over school curricula, which will allow school boards to be dominated by ideologues with a stake not so much in education but in the culture wars. In his election campaign Youngkin played his hand on this issue by siding with a mother who wanted Toni Morrison’s Beloved to be removed from her son’s school curriculum because it “upset” him (the boy was almost college age).

Youngkin also signed an executive order removing Covid-19 mask mandates, and received immediate pushback from some school districts– Arlington Public Schools said there would be no change to its mask requirements, with masks still required for staff and students inside school grounds and on buses. Fairfax County Public Schools also said it would continue to require masking, and Alexandria City Public Schools said it, too, would continue to require all individuals to wear masks in schools, facilities and on buses. Incidentally, Youngkin’s son Thomas attends an expensive prep school in Maryland and that has a mask mandate.

Youngkin also wants a law enforcement officer stationed at every school, an order that may be impossible to fulfill in the smallest jurisdictions.

Youngkin said he would quash any attempts to repeal the state’s right-to-work policy, which allows workers to opt out of paying dues to unions in their workplace.

“If anyone tries to bring me a bill that creates forced unionization, it will meet the business end of my veto pen,” he said.

+ Environmental protections

Youngkin left environmental protection out of his inaugural address, but later addressed the issue of natural resources. The result is a mixed bag.

Virginia is deeply divided in its political demographics— between the urban, more prosperous, and Democrat-leaning north (NOVA), and the more rural, less wealthy, and Republican-leaning southwest (SWVA). On measures to protect the environment Youngkin and his team came up with measures catering to both demographic bases, while overall supporting Republican measures that continue to depredate the environment.

Youngkin does not speak about climate change much, but has said he does not support legislation enacted by Democrats to end coal and gas burning by 2045.

His pick for secretary of natural resources, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, who served as head of the Environmental Protection Agency under Donald Trump, is the cause of much consternation.

However, Wheeler’s nomination faces an uphill confirmation battle in the Virginia Senate, where Democrats have a 21-19 advantage (Republicans now hold a 52-48 edge in the House).

Wheeler’s nomination is clearly a sop to the Trump-leaning SWVA, where remnants of the coal industry exist.

But Youngkin also had some goodies for voters in NOVA.

He said his administration would “end the dumping of raw sewage in the James River once and for all”, a continuing effort with a $1bn price tag.

Youngkin said he would also support using funds to help farmers avoid toxic runoff into the state’s waterways — a venture also backed by the previous governor, the Democrat Ralph Northam.

Youngkin also supports a “full cleanup” of the Chesapeake Bay– Virginia is part of a multi-state initiative working on the issue.

Youngkin also promised to create a Coastal Virginia Resiliency Authority, which will focus on rising seas.

These environmental initiatives will please NOVA voters.

The immensely wealthy Youngkin is said to view the governorship as a stepping-stone to a presidential run.

The outlines of his strategy for that are emerging— keep Trump’s base on-side as much as possible, while shedding some of its more feral and unhinged dimensions (horse medication as a treatment for Covid, conspiracies about “stolen” elections, Antifa being behind the Capitol insurrection, and so forth). Other aspects can be retained, such as dog-whistle racism, law and order, instituting a voter ID requirement, and tightening abortion restrictions (through Youngkin has been consistently ambiguous about these, not wanting to alienate liberal NOVA women voters), among others.

As Trump’s legal troubles magnify, and he becomes increasingly erratic in his public appearances, the appeal of the polished and country-club mannered Youngkin will certainly not suffer by comparison.

When Youngkin campaigned for the governorship, the Democrats said absolutely nothing about his deplorable corporate record before entering politics.

Youngkin worked for 3 decades at the Carlyle Group, ending up as its co-CEO. Since 2000 the Carlyle Group has paid $49,418,108 in penalties for 73 corporate violations.

As an example of the Group’s mores, when Youngkin was its co-CEO, it acquired HCR ManorCare, a nursing home chain with 281 facilities in 30 state. Soon after the acquisition, staffing levels were cut. The result was substandard care of patients. The Justice Department eventually charged Manor Care with elder abuse and Medicare fraud due to gross over-billing of the government. Several lawsuits were brought for negligence, elder abuse, and wrongful death. One lawsuit noted patients would lie in bed in their own excrement for days. Youngkin and Carlyle sucked Manor Care dry and it ended up in bankruptcy before they walked away. Carlyle and Youngkin bankrupted numerous companies in this way and made billions in the process.

If Youngkin makes a presidential run, the Democrats need to be merciless about Youngkin’s corporate record. Otherwise the stealth candidacy that worked in the Virginia gubernatorial race may just work one more time.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.