Newly sworn-in statewide leadership shakes up Virginia political environment

The Virginia political landscape has had significant changes in the past month as Governor Glenn Youngkin, Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears, Attorney General Jason Miyares and a Republican majority in the House of Delegates have taken office. 

This is the first Republican statewide elected office trifecta since 2009 and Republican majority in the House of Delegates since 2018. 

On his first day in office, Youngkin wasted no time at all. He signed eleven executive orders, including a ban on teaching critical race theory, lifting mandatory mask rules in schools and pledges to combat human trafficking and antisemitism. 

Additionally, Miyares issued a legal opinion that public universities in Virginia cannot mandate COVID-19 vaccines for students. This resulted in colleges like Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia dropping their vaccine and booster requirements.  

Regarding the mask mandate, localities in Virginia have given split decisions about whether to require masks or make them optional. In the Hampton Roads region, the Virginia Beach and Chesapeake school districts have made them optional, but Norfolk, Portsmouth and Suffolk have kept them mandated. . 

Also, seven Virginia school districts filed a lawsuit against Youngkin’s optional mask mandate and they are all currently still enforcing mask wearing. On Feb. 4, Judge Louise M. DiMattio for the Arlington Circuit Court of the 17th Judicial Court in Virginia ruled on the school mask case.

“The single issue before the Court is whether the Governor, via his emergency powers, can override the decision of local school boards delegated to them under SB 1303. On this pivotal point, the Court concludes that the Governor cannot,” said DiMattio. 

Her decision resulted in the filing of a temporary restraining order on the optional mask mandate. 

Senior Cam Terry, feels directly impacted by the growing tension between states and localities to control mask regulations. 

“My biggest concern about the new state leadership is the announcement of the end of the in-school mask mandate,” Terry said. “I am about to become a teacher myself and I would want to protect myself, as well as my students at all costs. I always hope that our officials in office have their people’s best interest at heart.”

Hunter Nordberg, a student of Political Science at Virginia Wesleyan, followed the transition into the Youngkin administration closely. 

“The Youngkin administration has had a rough start in 2022,” said Nordberg. “Despite his campaign promises to be a common-sense, unifying figure, Youngkin has only worked to divide. His executive order prohibiting masks in school, his nomination of a former coal lobbyist and climate change denier as the Secretary of Natural Resources, and his ‘tip-line’ to snitch on school curriculums about history are just a few of the wildly unpopular decisions Youngkin has made so far.” 

Nordberg believed that in addition to the recent executive orders, Youngkin faces future challenges with the 21-19 Democratic majority in the Virginia Senate. Democrats in the Senate have already blocked education legislation that was intended to ban critical race theory (CRT) from K-12 schools in Virginia. 

“It has only been one month since he took office, but Youngkin’s legislative priorities are looking bleak as well,” said Nordberg. “Virginia State Democrats, led by Senator Louise Lucas, are set to stop any Republican efforts to curb voting rights, weaken public education, or reverse the increase of [VA] minimum wage.” 

The Youngkin administration has already butted heads with the Virginia State Democrats on Feb. 1 when they voted to block Andrew Wheeler from Youngkin’s cabinet appointment. Wheeler formerly worked under President Trump as the EPA Chief.

Although Democrats have blocked Wheeler from a cabinet appointment, the Youngkin administration still has the power to hire him in a role that does not require approval by the General Assembly. 

Despite early challenges, Youngkin is working with an empowered republican majority in the Virginia House of Delegates, which should help the administration enact policy changes, if they can get a bill past the Virginia Senate. After two terms of Democratic gubernatorial leadership, Youngkin faces a long road of shifting the tide and creating meaningful policy that reflect his campaign values.

By Katie Yeager