Newbie governors with no governing experience face a steep learning curve

February 14, 2022 12:01 am

Gov. Glenn Youngkin is sworn in to office in front of the Capitol on Jan. 15, 2022. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

There ought to be a crash course – an orientation of sorts – for guys like Glenn Youngkin who get elected governor having never spent a moment in elective public office. It’s almost unfair.

Youngkin, a Republican, came to office like Mark Warner, 20 years before him, and Terry McAuliffe, the former governor he defeated last fall, from a world of boardrooms, deals brokered privately and unquestioned executive fiat unencumbered by public scrutiny, media criticism or contrarian legislatures. All three were multimillionaires when they were elected.

But the metrics for success in elective office — particularly the highest office in the state — couldn’t be more different.

In the world of elite business, a good transaction is one from which everyone either walks away satisfied – their bottom lines fattened and shareholders happy – or at least in no position to raise hell publicly.

Government, however, is counterintuitive — even alien — to them.

On the Saturday after the second Wednesday of January every fourth year, they raise their hands, swear a sacred oath, give a speech, then do a full-on cannonball into the deep end of the pool. Political neophytes do so either unaware that it has been stocked with ravening piranha or holding the foolish conceit that they can reason with them.

“The biggest blind spot that political newbies face when they become governor is the limitations that come with a public sector job. Governors are scrutinized in ways CEOs are not and governors face restive legislatures while CEOs usually have pretty docile boards of directors and loyal underlings,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.

Increasingly, governance in the age of tribalism is a zero-sum game played by Machiavelli’s rules in which victory for one side means absolute defeat and humiliation for the other. It’s full of trip wires and pitfalls that are, at a minimum, frustrating and often devastating to the uninitiated.

Youngkin isn’t the first Virginia governor to find himself chaotically thrashing about in his early weeks, and he’s felt the consequences.

His experience differs from previous novice governors who leaped from business into the Executive Mansion. Yet there are lessons he could learn from his predecessors’ tenures. 

While Warner and McAuliffe had never won election themselves, they came to the role with considerably more political grounding than Youngkin.

Warner helped guide Democrat L. Douglas Wilder’s historic 1989 election as the nation’s first elected Black governor. Since no good deed goes unpunished in politics, Wilder appointed Warner to chair the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Seven years later, Warner sought to unseat Virginia’s venerated Republican senior senator, John W. Warner. He came closer in the 1996 Warner vs. Warner race than anyone who challenged the courtly, handsome “senator from central casting.”

McAuliffe, by contrast, had been a consummate salesman and dealmaker since his childhood. The living embodiment of “the life of the party,” he rose to prominence as a close friend, adviser and fundraiser for a little-known Arkansas governor who parlayed voter fatigue over the early ‘90s recession and Reagan-era “trickle-down economics” into two White House terms.

The gregarious upstate New York native became one of Washington’s A-List power brokers during the Clinton years and headed the Democratic National Committee for four years afterward. His life as an elite politico was an open book – literally – before his failed 2009 bid for his party’s Virginia gubernatorial nomination and his 2013 encore when he won it all.

To differing degrees, Warner and McAuliffe were both Blue Dog Democrats who staked their claims in the political median, betting heavily on their ability to cut deals with adversaries, grow Virginia’s economy and advance their agenda, at least as much of it as they could through haggling and dickering with a GOP legislature.

The Macker is best remembered for single-handedly restoring voting rights for nearly 200,000 felons who had fully paid their debt to society, in many cases years or even decades earlier. He also made a record number of gubernatorial vetoes (120) as a “brick wall” against Republican bills tightening access to abortions and voter registration and easing restrictions on firearm use and possession. He battled to expand Medicaid to an additional 400,000 Virginians, and while it didn’t pass during his term, he had teed it up for passage under his successor, Gov. Ralph Northam.

Warner, by far the more risk-averse of the two Democrats, governed in a much different time. He carefully nurtured the bipartisan bona fides he had stressed as a candidate, essentially running as GOP Lite. His thing was economic development, public schools and roads. He promised no broad tax increases, no new curbs on gun rights – the Connecticut-raised Alexandrian with a weakness for Starbucks lattes even campaigned in rural Virginia as “a good ol’ boy.” He pledged fiscal restraint and to govern like a prudent businessman. He had no desire to clash with the burgeoning Republican legislative majorities on cultural issues such as LGBTQ rights (the acronym wasn’t even in common use then), school prayer or abortion.

I remember the earnest new governor appearing early in his term with House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins and other GOP legislative leaders at joint press conferences announcing initiatives, only to watch Republicans gleefully begin poisoning them as soon as the “Kumbaya” media events ended.

It took Warner two years to get his sea legs, and by then he had mastered the game well enough to rope-a-dope House Republicans into a strategic blunder and decisively earn his signature legislative triumph.

With the state facing worsening shortfalls during the recession of the early 2000s, Warner and his team had carefully, incrementally persuaded Virginians weary of clogged roads and crumbling schools that structural reforms to an inequitable state tax code were necessary. His solution would increase taxes for some but decrease or keep them unchanged for most. In the extra-innings 2004 legislative session that dragged into April, House GOP leadership smugly declared a recess so members could return home and “refresh ourselves with the will of the voters.” Rather than finding the anti-tax amen chorus they expected, many of them were confronted with school auditoriums filled with fed-up taxpayers and a clear message: get back to Richmond and fix this! Warner had flipped 17 moderate Republicans to his position by the time the dispositive votes were taken, more than enough to secure passage.

To the GOP’s further dismay, Warner’s legislative win only made him more popular. His out-the-door job approval rating in late October 2005 was 80 percent, still the highest ever measured for a departing Virginia governor in polling by The Washington Post/George Mason University Schar School of Government.

Youngkin, by contrast, went hard partisan hours after his inauguration, issuing 11 executive decrees, one of which has already provoked legal challenges. Among them was a legally dubious order directing local school districts to end COVID-era mask mandates and another that forbids public school educators from getting into “inherently divisive concepts” like critical race theory. It was political theater that appeased his own party’s conservative base but was a shot across the bow of the Democratic-ruled Senate where some of Youngkin’s cabinet nominations and policy priorities have since been merrily euthanized.

“Youngkin ran a very strong campaign but has not made the transition from campaigning mode to governing mode,” said Mark Rozell, a political science professor and dean of GMU’s Schar School.

Stoking conflict from the start at the expense of brokering accord across party lines may work as a predicate for a future bid for higher office – perhaps the 2024 presidential primaries. But it doesn’t advance promised long-term policy goals, especially in a divided legislature, Rozell said.

“That’s not going to come naturally to a former CEO who’s used to saying, ‘Do this, don’t do that,’ and things get done as opposed to negotiating important decisions and building consensus,” he said.

Whether Youngkin does the hard work of governing depends on where he wants to be in a few years. If that’s in Iowa and New Hampshire wooing GOP primary voters, good for him. But he may have to do it without a serious legislative portfolio.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct the number of vetoes issued by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. 

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]