Taking office as Virginia’s 74th governor, Youngkin promises ‘new and better day’

By: - January 15, 2022 4:30 pm

Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers his inaugural address in front of the Capitol after he was sworn in Saturday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

With prayers, “USA” chants and a military flyover, Gov. Glenn Youngkin was officially sworn in Saturday as Virginia’s 74th chief executive, making him the first Republican to take the office in more than a decade.

On a chilly afternoon in Richmond, with an approaching snowstorm threatening to become the first test for the new administration, Youngkin stuck to the sunny themes he ran on, decrying “toxic” politics and saying he’s entering the job with an “unbridled sense of optimism.”

In an inaugural speech lasting just under half an hour, the 55-year-old former private equity executive from Northern Virginia  promised to lead the state out of the COVID-19 pandemic to “a new and better day” ahead.

“Today we stand together on behalf of Virginians who’ve never lost faith, even when they’ve suffered loss. Of Virginians who have not stopped dreaming of a better life, even in the midst of trials and tribulations,” Youngkin said. “My fellow Virginians, the spirit of Virginia is alive and well. And together we will strengthen it.”

Youngkin’s victory in November over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who said a virus exposure prevented him from attending Saturday’s ceremony, was an abrupt reversal of what many saw as Virginia’s steady march to the left, coming just two years after Democrats took full control of the state for the first time in decades. 

Taking higher office alongside Youngkin were Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, the first Black woman elected to statewide office in Virginia, and Attorney General Jason Miyares, the son of a Cuban immigrant.

Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears enters the inauguration ceremony Saturday with her husband, Terence Sears. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Unlike the 2020 presidential election, Democrats have noted, Virginia’s transfer of power was peaceful and orderly. In his address, Youngkin thanked former Gov. Ralph Northam and former first lady Pam Northam for “being so gracious and supportive during this transition.”

“Their love for Virginia shines through,” he said.

Northam could not run for re-election due to Virginia’s term limits, and Youngkin too will leave office after four years.

Speaking from the Capitol steps, Youngkin said voters sent him and his GOP running mates to Richmond on a mission to “restore trust in government” and “restore power to the people,” while acknowledging they have only a “temporary license” to lead.

The GOP has portrayed its 2021 sweep as confirmation their party was more attuned to Virginians’ everyday concerns on issues like education, crime and the cost of living.

Youngkin made no new policy pronouncements in his speech, instead reiterating his commitment to keep schools open, empower parents, “remove politics from the classroom,” cut taxes and regulations, prioritize freedom over COVID-19 mandates, and “return respect” to police.

A few hours into his term Youngkin signed 11 executive actions meant to show he was delivering on campaign promises. According to Youngkin’s office, the orders are intended to end “the use of divisive concepts, including critical race theory,” in public education; lift COVID-19 mandates requiring masks in public schools and vaccines for state employees; “restore integrity and confidence” in the Virginia Parole Board, which state investigators found violated policy and state law in a rush to parole inmates; and pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state compact to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. It remains unclear whether Youngkin has the authority to do some of what he’s pledged. Several Virginia school systems were already saying Saturday night that they would be keeping mask mandates in place.

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In his speech, Youngkin tempered his praise of Virginia-born founding fathers with a nod to America’s history of “injustice.” He praised “barrier-breakers” like pioneering Black businesswoman Maggie Walker and former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, the nation’s first popularly elected Black governor, who saluted Youngkin from the crowd.

“The people of Virginia just elected the most diverse leadership in commonwealth history. Sending a message that Virginia is big enough for the hopes and dreams of a diverse people,” Youngkin said. “We stand here today to accept the license to lead. And will do so by including all and welcoming all. Because the future of Virginia belongs to all.”

For Democrats —  who used their power to usher in sweeping policy changes like legalizing marijuana, ending the death penalty, raising the minium wage, expanding voting access and addressing climate change — Youngkin’s inauguration is a time of trepidation, with many wondering if he’ll govern from the center or veer sharply to the right.

Whatever the case, his agenda will be limited by the state Senate, where Democrats have a 21-19 majority that is expected to block the most contentious Republican proposals that come over from the GOP-led House of Delegates.

“Senate Democrats have no intention of rolling back two years of tremendous progress for all Virginians — not only a select few,” Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, the caucus chair, said in a statement after Youngkin’s inauguration.

Despite that dynamic, former Gov. George Allen said he’s confident Youngkin will succeed in many areas by finding Democrats aligned with him on business and economic issues. Virginia was “ready to go over a cliff” with Democrats discussing getting rid of the state’s right-to-work law, he said, and will instead be “ascending” under Youngkin.

“I  look at it as liberating Virginia from this halting governance,” Allen said. “I just look forward to an unmuzzled future.”

The crowd cheers for Gov. Glenn Youngkin at his inauguration. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The crowd in attendance seemed to share Allen’s enthusiasm, at one point breaking a hush that had fallen over the grandstands by chanting Youngkin’s name.

Stephen and Susan McLane, a couple from Richmond, said they were eager for change.

Susan McLane, said she appreciated Youngkin’s background as a businessman and hopes he can bring that mindset to state government.

“Run it like it needs to be run,” she said. “But listening to people at the same time.”

Stephen McLane said he sees Youngkin as a deeply religious man and appreciated the enormity of his accomplishment, going from a near-total unknown in Virginia politics to a new GOP star.

“He did this on his own,” he said. “Trump was there, but he didn’t ask for any help. He paved this path himself.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers his inaugural address in front of the Capitol after he was sworn in Saturday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

This article has been updated to relect the release of the text of Youngkin’s executive orders and reaction by some school systems. 

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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