A new Roanoke College poll found that 36% of Virginians think Gov. Glenn Youngkin should run for president while 54% do not. Photo courtesy of the governor's office.

RICHMOND – Just five days after his inauguration in January, Gov. Glenn Youngkin traveled to Southwest Virginia. At Roanoke’s Carilion Memorial Hospital, he spoke with staff working on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic and announced his action plan for fighting the virus. “We are redoubling our efforts in order to make sure Virginians are in fact prepared to prevent and take care of those who get COVID. Today we recognize that prevention is absolutely the key,” Youngkin said before a crowd of doctors, nurses, local officials and onlookers.

His visit in Roanoke was Youngkin’s first of half a dozen trips to Southwest and Southside Virginia during his first 100 days in office. It was also his first trip outside of Richmond since taking his oath of office. “I’ve had people tell me that I’ve been in Southwest Virginia in more days than any governor in their entire term,” Youngkin joked during an interview with Cardinal News in the cabinet room of the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond’s Capitol Square earlier this week. 

Whether that’s true or not, without a doubt, Youngkin so far has paid a lot of attention to a region in the commonwealth that has often been neglected by many of his predecessors, Republican or Democrat. 

Just 11 days later, on Jan. 31, Youngkin returned to the region west of the Blue Ridge, meeting with healthcare officials at Ballad Health in Abingdon, followed by a visit at the Highlands Fellowship Church, where he talked with community leaders about the impact of COVID-19 on the community and about finding ways to increase the region’s vaccination rate, one of the lowest in the commonwealth.

A family member of the late B.J. Upton hugs Governor Glenn Youngkin when he signed a bill in Lynchburg to ban the so-called ‘Carolina Squat’ vehicle modification. Photo courtesy of governor’s office.

On March 19, he attended the funeral of slain local ​​Police Officer Caleb Ogilvie in Covington. Two days later, he traveled to Lynchburg, where he signed a bill to ban the vehicle modification known as the “Carolina Squat,” which state Sen. Mark Peake, a local Republican, had introduced after a deadly crash in February. That same day, Youngkin presented Altavista’s National Center for Health Veterans the first-ever Spirit of Virginia award.

On March 25, the governor showed up in Lynchburg again, speaking to students during the convocation at the Vines Center at Liberty University, and he returned to Southwest Virginia on April 8, visiting the construction start-up Alquist 3D in Pulaski. 

“A good politician keeps his base happy, and Youngkin wouldn’t be in office without the Southwest’s rural voters,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Letting people see you in person is one way to show that you remember where you got your votes. So it’s no surprise that Youngkin is down in the Southwest, Southside, and Roanoke as much as he is.”

Plus, when a Governor visits small towns and low-population counties, everybody hears about it and it has an impact, Sabato added.

While it’s not surprising that Youngkin carried the traditionally heavily Republican Southwest, he was able to increase voter turnout by more than 20,000 last November compared to the 2017 gubernatorial race. According to data from the Virginia Department of Elections, Youngkin obtained more than 80% of the vote in the region, with Democrat Terry McAuliffe coming in at just over 17%.

Youngkin also managed to exceed former President Donald Trump’s percentages in the 2020 presidential election. Trump had 78% of the vote in the Southwest in his contest against Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee.

Statewide, however, the election was much closer, with Youngkin defeating McAuliffe by 50.6% to 48.6%.

“Southwest Virginia is often left out, I heard it during the campaign and that’s why I committed to be very focused on including Southwest Virginia. I think step one is just being present, and that’s why I’ve made it a priority to be present in Southwest Virginia,” Youngkin said in the interview.

In the short term, Youngkin has used his first 100 days to tackle the low COVID-19 vaccination rates in the rural Southwest, as evidenced by his first few trips to the region this year. Back in January, when he assumed office, Southwest Virginia’s death rate from COVID was triple the state rate, which Teresa Tyson, who heads the Health Wagon, a mobile health clinic, attributed to the fact that a large proportion of the population wasn’t vaccinated and that the region lacked “life-saving monoclonal antibody therapies.”

In the interview, Youngkin reiterated that he has always maintained that vaccination for COVID-19 is an individual’s decision and that he was opposed to any forms of a vaccine mandate, even in areas where COVID cases and hospitalizations were elevated, and slow to come down. 

“But I’m going to strongly encourage folks – as your neighbor, as your friend, as your governor – to please get it,” he said, adding that he would work to continue to increase the vaccination rates across the commonwealth. “We’ve seen over 7 million people now vaccinated, but we have seen that hospitalization rates decline materially, and that’s really encouraging,” he said. 

Aware that the region faces some very specific challenges that are often connected, Youngkin singled out economic development as one of his key priorities for the coming four years – an approach that his predecessor, former Gov. Ralph Northam, also took to heart. 

Youngkin said that so far he was “very encouraged” by the collaborative efforts between himself, his Secretary of Commerce and Trade Caren Merrick, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and what he called “the great capability that exists across Southwest Virginia” in attracting businesses.

“We’ve got a very, very good set of dialogues going on with various companies that are looking to expand or move, and that’s very exciting,” he said.

Youngkin also touted his call to strengthen the state’s collaboration between public schools, community colleges and higher education as an important milestone during his first 100 days as governor, which he said would help to provide Virginians with multiple paths to get the skills they need. 

“Workforce development is extraordinarily important for economic development, but on top of that, particularly in Southwest Virginia, where there are not a lot of avenues open to folks to feel like they can pursue a different path. So the combination of innovation in our K-12 education and higher ed is really important” he said, referring to his initiative to create “lab schools” that his administration hopes will spark education innovation. The proposal would allow any institution of higher learning and private companies to form lab school partnerships with localities.

However, legislation passed by Republicans along party-line votes that would set aside $150 million to pay for this initiative still lingers in budget conference, where lawmakers are still working to close a deal with Democrats by July 1, when the state’s new biennial will go into effect. 

And budget conferees are also still grappling with different proposals addressing Virginia’s dire school construction needs. A key measure being weighed is House Bill 563, sponsored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, the deputy majority leader, which would create a competitive matching grant fund and program that would provide up to $2 billion in bonds to help localities repair aging and crumbling schools. The program would award matching grants on a competitive basis to local school boards that demonstrate poor school building conditions, commitment, and need, in order to fund the construction of new public school buildings in these local school divisions. 

The bill was  amended to require unobligated state gaming proceeds be directed to the construction fund for the purpose of awarding grants to local school boards – a recommendation made in a Senate Bill 473 sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, which the Senate conformed with O’Quinn’s House measure. 

The state would provide a total of $541.7 million (funded with $291.7 million from the General Fund and $250 million from the state’s literary fund) in loan rebates that would incentivize the school construction loans in a two-tier system. The exact allocation has yet to be determined as lawmakers work to close a deal.

Throughout the process, Youngkin has often renewed his push for education funding, but he has said little about school construction, despite alarming data by the Virginia Department of Education estimating that the total cost to replace schools that are at least 50 years old would carry a price tag of about $25 billion.

“Historically, school construction has been a local responsibility,” Youngkin said in the interview. But he added that given the size of Virginia’s excess budget, the state should step in and help. “It’s been a priority of mine to have the largest education budget, to give substantial teacher raises, to invest in school infrastructure, to invest in special programs for Virginians with disabilities, and to invest in lab schools and innovation. This is part of our overall budget plan,” Youngkin said, adding that both Republicans and Democrats have school construction proposals.

“I don’t know exactly what’s going to come out of the legislature, but this is important for us to do,” Youngkin said. “I am supportive of this, because we do need to press forward in making sure that jurisdictions have the incremental funding to do what is necessary, both renovation and new construction.”

Although the General Assembly on Wednesday acted on the more than 100 pieces of legislation that Youngkin amended, while keeping all of his 26 vetoes intact, the governor’s biggest challenge remains working with a divided legislature. About 50 bills remain in conference, with the June 30 deadline inching closer by the day. 

By the time the General Assembly adjourned its regular session in March, a $3 billion gap still separated the spending bills of both parties, with most disagreements relating to different versions of tax relief proposals, including legislation seeking to eliminate the 2.5% tax on groceries and essential personal hygiene products and a measure that would double Virginia’s standard reduction and offer tax rebates of $300 for individuals and $600 for married couples.

While Youngkin hopes for a timely resolution, a Senate panel on Wednesday gave him a taste of defeat by killing a proposal that would have suspended Virginia’s gas tax for three months to provide short term tax relief to Virginians struggling with climbing fuel prices.  

“Youngkin doesn’t control the Senate, and his majority in the election was not large,” said Sabato, the UVA professor. “The Democrats don’t appear intimidated by him. Maybe that will change after the Senate is on the ballot in 2023,” referring to next year’s election on which Republicans hang their hope to regain full control over the legislature.

But for now, Democrats have a one-seat majority in the 40-seat chamber, which they have used to block many Republican proposals, including Youngkin’s amendment to put all nine Loudoun County school board members on the ballot this November over the possible wrongdoing by members of the body and the school district regarding sexual assaults that happened in two Loudoun County schools last year.

Democratic leadership also slammed Youngkin over his high number of vetoes – he rejected 26 of the more than 800 bills that the divided legislature sent him in March, more than any other governor in his first year in office since Republican Jim Gilmore in 1998, who had vetoed 37 pieces of legislation. His critics were particularly irked by the fact that all of these bills were sponsored by Democrats, including some and some had passed with broad bipartisan support. 

Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, on Wednesday accused Youngkin of using “political vetoes and amendments to strike back at Democrats in the House and in the Senate and to fan the flames of a culture war in order to boost his national profile.” 

And earlier this month, Sen. Creigh Deeds, a Democrat from Bath County, scolded Youngkin for not giving him the courtesy of a heads-up before vetoing his proposal aimed at protecting victims of violent crimes from predatory medical debt collection practices that had passed the legislature with bipartisan support. Calling a lawmaker before a veto has long been custom in the Virginia legislature. 

In his inaugural address back in January, Youngkin had struck a unifying tone. “Today we gather, not as individuals, nor as Republicans or Democrats, but as Virginians,” Youngkin said. “No matter who you voted for, I pledge to be your advocate, your voice, your governor.”

But that was then. When asked about Deeds’ complaint earlier this week, Youngkin brushed said concerns aside. “Working together doesn’t mean that you have to agree on everything,” he said. “There are some fundamental differences between what I believe the path forward is and what many folks in the legislature and leadership of the Democrats believe what the path forward is. That doesn’t bother me, and I understand.”

Youngkin said that his 30-year business career as a businessman – including 25 years at the private-equity firm The Carlyle Group, where he became co–CEO in 2018 – prepared him to deal with different opinions. “When you begin to actually move in a different direction from where the status quo wants you to be, of course people are going to be resistant,” he said.

Seemingly unphased by the blowback and accusations of hyperpartisanship, Youngkin doubled down and underscored his unwavering intent to lower taxes, invest in law enforcement “to make sure our communities are safe,” and to “fundamentally change our approach to some of these things.”

“I know change is hard, I get that,” he said, “but voters came together in a way they haven’t done in a long, long time, where we saw the majority of the independent vote vote for me, and lots of Democrats. The minority communities have turned out in a way they haven’t in a long, long time. This wasn’t Republicans versus Democrats, this was Virginians speaking.”

While there would always be what he’d call “inside baseball frustrations,” Virginians don’t care about these inner workings of the legislative process, Youngkin said. 

“Virginians want results, and we are working together to deliver results. Over the course of the last 100 days everything that happened in this government had to be bipartisan, and so we had to work together and we have had great successes in the first 100 days. We have seen a tremendous amount of bipartisan work because by definition it has to be.”

However, Youngkin’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates in Virginia’s public schools, which he signed within hours of his inauguration, was fiercely opposed not just by Democrats, but by many independents. Several polls have shown that it was highly unpopular in the commonwealth, but Youngkin shrugged it off, calling it “empowering parents, allowing parents to make decisions.” On the same day, with a stroke of his pen, Youngkin also made good on another campaign promise by banning critical race theory from being taught in Virginia schools – which he called “giving parents great transparency in the curriculum.” 

But when it comes to some of his other key policies that he doesn’t have the power to implement by executive fiat – such as his tax relief measures, some of which Senate Democrats are still pushing against – Youngkin has shown to become increasingly impatient, even using TV commercials to publicly strongarm lawmakers into giving him a budget. 

Yet Youngkin insists that he never underestimated the deep partisan divide in politics today – quite to the contrary. 

“I don’t think that the fundamental shared values of Virginians are that divided at all actually,” he said. “I think that politicians do what politicians do sometimes, which is find ways to disagree because it helps them on other fronts. At the end of the day we’re going to lower taxes in Virginia. That is not debated, it is just debated about how much, and I think we can lower taxes by $5 billion.”

From tax relief and investments in education, the mental health system and law enforcement, to cutting regulations – as a former CEO of a major private equity firm, Youngkin doesn’t view these issues as partisan, merely as differences of opinion that can be worked out. 

“We’ve got budget work to do now, and I am strongly encouraging both sides, the House and the Senate, to send me a budget. We are close, we are very close on what I think both sides can live with, and I look forward to working with them to close this out,” he said.

Because Virginians, they don’t care about politics, about the “normal Democrat-Republican stuff that goes on,” Youngkin said. “Virginians just want their government to work for them. And that’s what we are doing.”

Markus Schmidt

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