Culture Wars and Campaigning: Here’s a Look Back at Gov. Youngkin’s First Year in Office

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin works in the old Governor's office at the Capitol Wednesday March 2, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

By Isabel Soisson

January 13, 2023

Sunday, Jan. 15, marks one year since Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin assumed office in Virginia—and what a year it has been. Between COVID-19, divisive education policy, and campaigning in other states, Virginia’s governor has kept himself busy–but not always with the business of governing. Here’s a look back at Gov. Youngkin’s first year in office, starting from the very beginning.

Youngkin’s actions have been watched closely since his defeat of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in 2021. Youngkin (and his GOP ticket-mates for lieutenant governor and attorney general) became the first Republican to win statewide office in the commonwealth since 2009 and ended Democrats’ eight-year hold on the governorship.

Youngkin didn’t waste any time putting his GOP stamp on the office. Within two days of taking office, he signed eleven new executive orders. One of the most notable executive orders was the one that removed masking requirements in schools across the state. Several Virginia school districts, however, said at the time that their masking policies would remain in place, including three huge school districts in Northern Virginia.

In addition to rescinding masking requirements, Youngkin also signed executive orders that ended the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees, withdrew from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and of course, banned Critical Race Theory in public education (despite the fact that it’s not actually a part of state educational curriculum). The governor also created a tip line for parents to report teachers who bring up “divisive” topics in the classroom, such as Critical Race Theory and the history of systemic racism in the United States. In April 2022, The Washington Post, along with a dozen other media outlets, sued Youngkin over his administration’s refusal to release the records from that tip line. In November 2022, Youngkin’s administration released just 350 emails–likely just a tiny fraction of these tips–that came in through the tip line in order to settle the lawsuit. In September 2022, Youngkin’s tip line was quietly shut down without explanation.

Youngkin’s first legislative session saw little of his agenda advance, as the Democratic majority in the state Senate blocked many of the proposals that made their way out of the Republican-controlled House. A few months after his largely ineffectual session, Youngkin left the commonwealth for Michigan, where he campaigned for Trump-endorsed Tudor Dixon. Youngkin’s travel schedule continued to ramp up ahead of the 2022 midterms, and he seemed to be spending less and less time in the commonwealth as Election Day approached. His fall travel schedule included visiting seven other states: Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon. His trip to Maine included campaigning for former Gov. Paul LePage, who has said that he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.” Given LePage’s racist track record, which includes telling attendees of a town hall that the vast majority of drug dealers in Maine were Black or Hispanic and condemning the ACLU of Maine for raising concerns about racial profiling, that would appear to be true.

Youngkin’s travels also included a trip to Arizona to campaign for election-denying gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, another Trump-endorsed candidate, and a trip to Georgia, where GOP Gov. Brian Kemp was running for re-election. It’s worth noting that many of these MAGA Republican, Trump-endorsed candidates that Youngkin campaigned for lost big in the November midterms.

About a week later, the Virginia State Board of Education, with a majority appointed by Youngkin himself, voted unanimously to reject a revised version of the state’s K-12 history standards proposed by his administration after public uproar and a scathing response from critics both in Virginia and across the United States who called the new draft a “whitewashing of history.”

Youngkin ended his first year in office on a losing note just this past Tuesday: Democrat Aaron Rouse prevailed in the special election to represent District 7 in the Virginia state Senate, defeating Republican Kevin Adams. Rouse’s win is not only a win for Democrats, but it’s also a victory for reproductive rights: Youngkin has proposed a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and while Democrats hold a slim majority in the state Senate, every member counts. Rouse told both The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press last month that protecting abortion access would be one of his top priorities.

Youngkin’s behavior during his first year in office suggests his focus is divided between Virginia’s future and his own: he’s aligning himself with MAGA Republicans and clearly attempting to make himself known among Republicans in states besides the one he actually runs. Plus, he’s said that he hasn’t yet ruled out a 2024 presidential bid–never mind that Virginians elected him to serve his full, single term, which doesn’t end until January 2026.

  • Isabel Soisson

    Isabel Soisson is a multimedia journalist who has worked at WPMT FOX43 TV in Harrisburg, along with serving various roles at CNBC, NBC News, Philadelphia Magazine, and Philadelphia Style Magazine.


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