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Republican Glenn Youngkin is sworn in as the governor of Virginia

Glenn Youngkin waves to the crowd at his inauguration on Saturday Jan. 15, in Richmond, Va.
Scott Elmquist
/
VPM
Glenn Youngkin waves to the crowd at his inauguration on Saturday Jan. 15, in Richmond, Va.

Updated January 15, 2022 at 6:18 PM ET

Businessman Glenn Youngkin was sworn in as the 74th governor of Virginia on Saturday in Richmond, the first Republican to hold the office in nearly a decade.

"No matter who you voted for, I pledge to be your advocate, your voice, your governor," Youngkin said in his inaugural speech, offering a message of unity that, at times, was absent from the campaign. "Our politics have become too toxic. Soundbites have replaced solutions — taking precedence over good faith problem-solving."

But during his speech, the crowd was loudest, and many stood on their feet, when Youngkin spoke about "removing politics from the classroom." On the campaign trail, he frequently talked about parents' rights to say what is taught in school.

Two history-making Republicans also took the oath of office. Former state Delegate Jason Miyares was sworn in as attorney general, the first Latino elected to statewide office. And former state Delegate Winsome Sears is now lieutenant governor, the first Black woman to hold that title.

Youngkin began leaving his mark shortly after the inauguration when he signed several executive orders. His first executive order bans what he calls "divisive concepts" – including critical race theory – from teacher diversity trainings, as well as "all guidelines, websites, best practices, and other materials" produced by Virginia's Department of Education, and orders a review of school curriculum for CRT-related content. Youngkin campaigned heavily on the notion that school equity programs designed to address systemic racism had gone too far. Critics noted CRT does not appear in Virginia's K-12 curricula and accused Youngkin of stoking racial resentment.

Another order attempts to fast-track Virginia's removal from a regional carbon cap-and-trade program. Youngkin also ordered an end to a mask mandate for public schools and scrapped a vaccine or weekly testing mandate for state employees put in place by outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam. Several school districts, including Arlington and Richmond, said they would keep their mask mandates in place.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, says some of the policies were likely to be met with legal challenges.

"I think he's pushing the envelope," Tobias says. "And I think the General Assembly will be unhappy with some of it, too."

Youngkin's victory in November shocked Democrats who — after President Biden's 10-point margin in the state — were hoping former Gov. Terry McAuliffe would be able to return to the governor's mansion and continue the party's grip on an office.

But Youngkin's campaign turned out many voters in rural Virginia and made inroads in suburban areas of the state. The former private equity CEO framed his lack of political experience as an asset.

In addition to seizing control of all three statewide offices, Republicans also hold a 52-48 majority in the House of Delegates after flipping seven seats in the 100-member chamber. During their brief time in the majority, Democrats raised the minimum wage, abolished the death penalty, expanded access to voting and legalized marijuana.

Republicans are hoping to work with the new governor to roll back some of the more progressive elements of those new laws. But they'll have to cajole or compromise with Democrats in the state Senate, where Democrats still hold a 21-19 edge, with broader margins on key committees.

Republican Winsome Sears waves to supporters just before taking the oath of office for lieutenant governor in Richmond on Saturday.
Scott Elmquist / VPM
/
VPM
Republican Winsome Sears waves to supporters just before taking the oath of office for lieutenant governor in Richmond on Saturday.

Youngkin will also have to face an issue that he didn't talk about on the campaign trail: figuring out how Virginia's new marijuana industry will work. Democrats legalized marijuana in small amounts, but the system for retail sales still hasn't been established.

Youngkin's cabinet includes a mix of political newcomers as well as veterans of state and federal government, including staffers who worked under former President Donald Trump. That includes natural resources secretary nominee Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and administrator of Trump's Environmental Protection Agency who rolled back protections passed by former President Barack Obama.

Wheeler's nomination sparked immediate outcry among Senate Democrats in Virginia, who are hoping to block his nomination. The fight over Wheeler's nomination could be an early test of Youngkin's ability to work his way through delicate political situations. Youngkin has so far ignored those protests, calling Wheeler "incredibly qualified" in an interview with member station VPM on Tuesday.

Northam, the outgoing Democrat, has said he's unlikely to run for office again. He faced widespread calls to resign in February 2019 after reporters surfaced a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page. Northam ultimately denied he was in the photo, stood down those calls and went on to sign sweeping policy changes pushed by Democratic majorities. The pediatric neurologist is set to resume seeing patients on Monday.

Ben Paviour covers state politics for member station VPM; Michael Pope works as a reporter for Virginia Public Radio.

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