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Businessman Glenn Youngkin is scheduled to be sworn in as Virginia’s 74th governor Saturday in Richmond, returning Republicans to a post they have not held in nearly a decade.
Two historic Republicans will also take the oath of office. Former state delegate Jason Miyares is sworn in as attorney general, the first Latino elected to a statewide office. And former state delegate Winsome Sears is sworn in as lieutenant governor, the first black woman to hold the title.
Youngkin’s victory in November shocked Democrats, who — following President Biden’s 10-point lead in the state — were hoping former Gov. Terry McAuliffe would return to the governor’s mansion and see the party’s hold over an office currently held by outgoing Governor Ralph holds, Northam can continue. But Youngkin’s campaign produced large voters in rural Virginia and made strides in the state’s suburbs. The former private equity CEO cited his lack of political experience as an advantage.
Republicans not only took control of all three statewide offices, but also a 52-48 majority in the House of Representatives after flipping seven seats in the 100-seat house. During their brief tenure in the majority, Democrats have raised the minimum wage, eliminated the death penalty, expanded voting access and legalized marijuana. Republicans hope to work with the new governor to roll back some of the more progressive elements of these new laws. But they must flatter or compromise with Democrats in the Senate, where Democrats still have a 21-19 lead, with wider margins in key committees.
During the campaign, Youngkin spoke often about his “day-one agenda”: establishing charter schools, raising teachers’ salaries, cutting business regulations, removing climate change commitments for Virginia, firing the state’s embattled parole board, and passing a host of tax cuts. Most of these policies require regulatory approval, but Youngkin has said he plans to address some policies related to COVID-19 in executive orders. That includes repealing an order by Northam requiring masks in public schools. Youngkin could also face an unexpected challenge on his first day in office as a potentially massive snowstorm descends on Virginia on Sunday.
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Youngkin will also have to face an issue he didn’t talk about during the campaign. That means figuring out how Virginia’s new marijuana industry will work. Democrats have legalized small-batch marijuana, but the retail sales system is still not in place.
Youngkin’s cabinet includes a mix of political newcomers as well as state and federal veterans, including staffers who worked under former President Donald Trump. They include Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and administrator of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, who reversed safeguards enacted by former President Barack Obama.
Wheeler’s nomination prompted an immediate outcry among Senate Democrats in Virginia, who hope to block his nomination. The fight for Wheeler’s nomination could be an early test of Youngkin’s ability to work his way through sticky 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 is unlikely to run for office again. He faced widespread calls for his resignation in February 2019 after reporters surfaced a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page. Northam eventually denied he was in the photos, dismissed those calls, and then signed sweeping policy changes pushed by Democratic majorities. The child neurologist is expected to see patients again on Monday.
Ben Paviour covers state politics for member station VPM; Michael Pope works as a reporter for Virginia Public Radio.