Youngkin sparks Democratic backlash in Virginia
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) is facing fierce pushback from Democrats as he implements a slew of conservative policies just two weeks after he formally assumed office.
The businessman-turned-politician has hit the ground running, signing a number of executive orders aimed at banning mask mandates and what his office has called “inherently divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny” from classrooms.
The executive orders have sparked backlash from Youngkin’s critics inside and outside of Virginia. Seven of the state’s school boards and some parents have already sued to block the governor’s mask-optional executive order for children in schools.
Meanwhile, a tip line established by Youngkin for parents to report what it deems to be “divisive practices” taught in classrooms — like critical race theory, an academic theory that focuses on the role of institutional racism in the nation’s history — has also met with criticism and mockery from the left. Singer John Legend urged Black parents in a tweet this week to flood the tip line with complaints about their history being silenced.
Youngkin’s Attorney General Jason Miyares has also taken a conservative stance on a number of issues, including coronavirus restrictions. On Friday, Miyares issued a legal opinion arguing that Virginia colleges and universities did not have the authority to mandate that students get the coronavirus vaccine.
The administration’s actions have earned Youngkin praise from his conservative allies, who say he is keeping his campaign promises.
“He’s followed through with exactly what he’s promised and so now there’s outrage on the left that he’s doing what he said he would do,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.
“In Republican circles, that doesn’t hurt him at all, that helps him,” he added.
Republicans argue that Youngkin’s rollback of the coronavirus restrictions that were enacted under former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam (D) reflects the growing sense of fatigue Americans are feeling when it comes to the virus. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll published Friday found that 75 percent of respondents said they were tired of the pandemic, while 77 percent said they believe most people will eventually get the virus.
Youngkin’s allies have also touted the announcement of his COVID Action Plan, which was released earlier this month. According to the governor’s office, the plan would ensure that health care facilities and providers would be provided with the proper tools to combat the virus, while prioritizing rapid tests and encouraging the state’s residents to get vaccinated.
The effects of the pandemic do not appear to have helped President Biden, who is facing his first midterm election as president in November. A Pew Research poll released earlier this week showed that Biden’s approval rating on handling the pandemic had dropped from 65 percent last March to 44 percent this month.
But Democrats say Youngkin’s approval ratings, while only based off his first two weeks in office, are dismal.
A poll from the Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling released first to The Hill on Friday showed that 44 percent of Virginia voters approved of Youngkin’s handling of the poll, while 47 percent said they disapproved.
Youngkin’s executive order to make masks optional in Virginia schools has been met with the most resistance from school boards and some parents. The executive order allows parents to be the ultimate deciders of whether their children should wear masks in public or private schools.
School boards of Alexandria, Arlington County, Richmond, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Hampton and Prince William County filed a lawsuit with the Circuit Court for the County of Arlington earlier this week, arguing that the governor’s executive order making masks optional in schools was unconstitutional.
And according to The Washington Post, 53 percent of school districts are still requiring masks for students in their schools.
Youngkin himself defended his executive order to roll back the mask mandate in a Washington Post op-ed published earlier this week.
“My executive order ensures that parents can opt-out their kids from a school’s mask mandate,” Youngkin wrote. “It bans neither the wearing of masks nor the issuing of mask mandates. Parents can now choose whether wearing a mask at school is right for their child.”
Contacted by The Hill, Youngkin’s office pointed to comments from his joint address to Virginia lawmakers earlier this year in which he called for both parties to come together.
The current law on the books in Virginia states that “to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
“Parents want schools open and the science is clear—masks are an effective tool in preventing the spread of this virus,” Virginia Democratic Party Chair Susan Swecker said in a call with reporters on Friday.
Youngkin’s critics have also accused him of talking out of both sides of his mouth through acting more moderately on the campaign trail and governing more divisively.
“He campaigned focusing on bringing people together, collaboration, and being a governor for everybody,” said Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D), the minority leader in Virginia’s House of Delegates.
“Now we’re seeing a totally different course of action.”
Democrats also argue that Youngkin’s actions, whether it’s the tip line to report “divisive practices” or making masks optional, amount to a deeper conflict between Youngkin and public schools.
“It’s really clear that this governor is preparing for a war against our public schools,” Swecker said. “We hope that the courts rule in the favor of science, public health, the law, and most of all, our students.”
The legal challenge from the seven school boards will be heard next week.
“The governor suggested that everyone follow the lead of their principle while the litigation is pending, but I certainly hope school administrators will follow the law if the executive order is upheld,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist and adviser to Miyares.
Youngkin’s rhetoric on mask and vaccine mandates, as well as parents’ rights in the education sphere, largely matches up with what he said on the campaign trail. Candidate Youngkin put a special emphasis on taking power away from school boards and giving parents a greater say in their children’s education. In fact, the strategy used by Youngkin on education has now become sort of a prototype for many Republicans running in statewide races in 2022.
“His executive actions since taking office are a direct reflection of the mandate he was given by Virginians at the ballot box to restore parents’ rights to do what they think is best for their children,” said Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action for America, an offshoot to the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“Local school officials who are refusing to comply with Youngkin’s parent-supported, pro-freedom agenda are standing in the way of Virginians who subscribe to the idea that parents have the best interests of their children in mind,” Anderson added.
However, the governor’s critics say the actions from the administration have resulted in him getting off on the wrong foot with Democrats, who still control the state Senate in Richmond.
“There were Democrats in the legislature eager to work with the new administration on a variety of issues where they can agree on what is best for Virginia, and yet they are now in full resist mode against the administration because of the 11 executive actions on day one,” said Mark Rozell, dean and Ruth D. and John T. Hazel chair in public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
It’s unclear how Youngkin’s relationship with Democrats will unfold over his term in Virginia, which until this month had a Democratic governor since 2014. However, it’s clear that the new administration is setting the tone for Richmond over the next four years.
“It’s going to be quite a ride,” Rozell said. “They didn’t start quiet.”