Glenn Youngkin takes the oath of office. Photo by Markus Schmidt

RICHMOND – Republican Glenn Youngkin was sworn in as Virginia’s 74th governor Saturday, ending an eight-year Democratic reign in Richmond’s Executive Mansion. The 55-year old former CEO with the private equity firm The Carlyle Group championed a spirit of unity and optimism as he addressed a large crowd of supporters from the south portico of the state Capitol. “Today we gather, not as individuals, nor as Republicans or Democrats, but as Virginians,” Youngkin said in his inaugural address. “No matter who you voted for, I pledge to be your advocate, your voice, your governor.”

Dressed in a black morning coat with long tails, the 6-foot-7-inch tall political newcomer was surrounded by his wife Suzanne and their four children as he took his oath of office administered by S. Bernard Goodwyn, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, and retired Justice Elizabeth A. McClanahan, a native of Buchanan County. As soon as he was sworn in at 12:33 p.m., Virginia National Guard soldiers fired a booming gun salute with artillery howitzers that echoed through Capitol Square.

Youngkin compared his election, in which he defeated his Democratic opponent – former Gov. Terry McAuliffe – by two percent points, to a movement. “In this last election, we heard from more voters than ever before, 25% more, nearly 3.3 million Virginians who sent us here on a mission to restore trust in government, and to restore power to the people,” Youngkin said. “We stand here today as the messengers of that movement. Entrusted to protect liberty, create opportunity and build unity for the hard work ahead. This celebration is about that movement and not the candidates or elected-office holders. It’s not about me, but rather about us.”

Youngkin during his campaign tapped into the frustration of parents not just relating to children struggling with virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also fear over school curriculums that did not seek parental input. “​​We will remove politics from the classroom and re-focus on essential math, science and reading. And we will teach all of our history the good and the bad,” Youngkin said, adding that “we know that when our children don’t go to school it harms their learning and development. So let me be clear, we must keep our children in school five days a week.”

Within hours of taking his oath, Youngkin made good on some of his key promises that he called his Game Plan for Day One during the election by signing about a dozen executive actions, most notably an order banning critical race theory – which is not part of Virginia’s K-12 curriculum – from being taught in public schools. Youngkin also signed an executive order repealing mask mandates in schools and he ended COVID-19 vaccine mandates for state employees.  

Youngkin’s running mates were also sworn in moments before the new governor. Winsome Earle-Sears, a Jamaican immigrant and former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, took the oath as lieutenant governor. She is only the second woman and the first Black woman to be elected to a statewide office in the commonwealth. Attorney General Jason Miyares, the son of Cuban immigrants, is the first Latino to hold statewide office in Virginia.

“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. He acknowledged “barrier-breakers” like Maggie Walker and former Gov. Doug Wilder, who attended Saturday’s ceremony, for “leading the way for the historic inauguration today of our new Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears and our new Attorney General Jason Miyares.”

Youngkin also recognized the more than 15,000 Virginians who died from the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic almost two years ago. “Not a single one of us has escaped the tragic consequences of COVID-19,” he said. But despite the continuing challenges, Youngkin said that he sees a path forward, “not to some pessimistic new normal, but to a new and better day.” While praising the widely available vaccines and new therapeutics and medical treatment as “a miracle of modern medicine,” Youngkin reiterated his position that mandates aren’t the solution. “Our common path forward is with our deep and abiding respect for individual freedom,” he said. “And our common path forward protects both lives and livelihoods.”

Earlier on Saturday, Youngkin and his wife, Suzanne, met with outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam and first lady Pamela Northam in the Old Senate Chamber in the Capitol for the traditional passing of the key to the mansion from one governor to the next. 

Instead of a brass key to a door lock, Northam handed his successor a card – punctured by tooth marks from his puppy Pearl. “Did the dog eat it?” Youngkin asked incredulously. Northam responded, “He tried to eat it,” and then explained that it would give Youngkin access to the back and side doors of the mansion, and the elevator. “I can promise you it still works,” Northam said. 

After the key exchange, Northam and Youngkin walked across the Capitol hallway to the Jefferson Room, where they met with seven former governors – Democrats Chuck Robb, Doug Wilder, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and Republicans George Allen, Jim Gilmore and Bob McDonnell. “Well, this is a heck of a group,” Youngkin exclaimed as he walked into the room.

McDonnell replied, “Welcome to the group.” 

The only living former governor absent was McAuliffe, who sent his regards. “Dorothy and I hoped we could be there in person, but are quarantining due to a close COVID contact in the interest of health and safety. We wish Glenn Youngkin and the new administration well today as they start their term,” McAuliffe wrote on Twitter.  

Youngkin and his family are moving to Richmond’s Executive Mansion from Great Falls in Fairfax County, where they own a 30-acre horse farm. Youngkin was born in the state capital, and he grew up in nearby Chesterfield County. After graduating from Rice University in 1990, he went to work for the investment bank First Boston for two years before going back to school to get his MBA, followed by a short stint at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company – his last stop before joining The Carlyle Group in 1995, where he stayed until September 2020. 

During his campaign, Youngkin successfully walked a fine line between earning the trust of supporters of former President Donald Trump as well as moderate Republicans and independents. He ran on a platform of issues resonating with most conservative voters – from across-the-board tax cuts and rebates to funding education, cutting regulations, investing in schools and teacher salaries, increased funding of law enforcement and economic development, plus social issues such as banning critical race theory, a curriculum unpopular on the political Right that acknowledges that racism is institutionalized and is embedded in America’s history, legal systems, and policies.  

On Saturday, Youngkin vowed to tackle the high cost of living by suspending for a year the recent tax increase on gasoline, and eliminate the grocery tax altogether – legislation for the latter is already being weighed by the General Assembly. “In addition, we will double the standard deduction on income taxes, rein in skyrocketing property taxes, provide the largest tax rebate in Virginia’s history, and cut taxes on our military veterans’ retirement benefits,” Youngkin said, earning applause and cheers from the audience. 

Youngkin also promised to re-energize the economy by cutting back regulations, investing in job training, making it easier for businesses to access capital, and getting all Virginians back to work. “Our goal is to create 400,000 jobs and 10,000 new startups over the next four years,” he said, adding that he wants to make Virginia more competitive,  no longer conceding corporate relocations and expansions to neighboring states like Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee. “We will compete. And we will win,” he said.

While the state Senate is still under Democratic control, the new governor and his administration will benefit from a Republican 52-48 majority in the House of Delegates. Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, in an interview Saturday called Youngkin’s inauguration “a historic day” for Virginia. 

“I see Governor Youngkin in the next four years as being a transforming individual here in the commonwealth. We have a lot of policy issues to address, and we will be working through these over the next 60 days and the years ahead,” Walker said. “The real thing for Virginians is that we have hope now, hope in a leader who knows how to work with people and listen to people, and I think that is going to be the great thing that will be coming out of this administration.”

And state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, said that Youngkin set an “optimistic tone for the commonwealth” full of opportunities for everyone. “He reaffirmed his commitments to parents having a significant role in education, economic opportunity, and protecting the individual liberty of all Virginians,” Suetterlein said.

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.