Less than a year into his term as the governor of Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin has made national headlines for delivering on some controversial promises to voters, campaigning for Republicans in several battleground states — and toying with the idea of a presidential run.
We sat down with the governor in Richmond to discuss what he sees as the biggest challenges facing Northern Virginia and what’s next on his agenda.
In the Executive Mansion, Youngkin sits flanked by paintings of his historic predecessors, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Douglas Wilder, who became the first African American to be elected governor in U.S. history in 1990.
“This is an amazing memory, to remind yourself every day that I am in fact the governor of Virginia, and that’s what these guys did,” Youngkin says.
Youngkin resides at the mansion when he’s in Richmond, but he says he still frequently gets back to Great Falls, where he has a home with his wife, Suzanne, and where they have raised their four children. Youngkin is a newcomer to politics — but you wouldn’t know it from his smooth style, appeal to many suburban voters, and the attention he has drawn from national media.
The former head of a private equity firm, Youngkin narrowly beat Democratic establishment figure and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2021 after capitalizing on parental anger stemming from school shutdowns during the pandemic and debates about how much of a say parents should have in their children’s education.
When asked about the top issue he believes Northern Virginia faces, though, he turns to economics.
“The No. 1 challenge facing the whole commonwealth — and it’s in fact exacerbated in Northern Virginia — is workforce. We’ve had such a great run with economic development and corporate relocations and expansions,” he says. “I look back, and to see Boeing and Raytheon come to Northern Virginia, and to see Hilton and Google expand in Northern Virginia — it’s an exciting time. … But one of the challenges, of course, is workforce, and Northern Virginia lost 160,000 jobs during the pandemic. We lost jobs all over the commonwealth, but the biggest chunk of them were in Northern Virginia. And we haven’t come close to recovering all of them yet. … We’ve seen workforce participation across the commonwealth go from nearly 67 percent down to 63 and a half. And those folks aren’t in the workforce anymore. We’ve got to go find them and get them back in or recruit new ones or grow the next generation. … For Northern Virginia, that’s a real challenge.”
In an October poll by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center, 31 percent of Virginia voters said “the economy and inflation” was the top issue facing the country. And while that topic elicited the greatest concern among respondents, it also revealed a deep partisan divide: 53 percent of Republican voters cited the economy as their top concern, while only 14 percent of Democrats agreed. For Virginia Democrats, top issues were more evenly split among climate change, racial inequality, abortion, the economy and inflation, and gun violence. Thirty-one percent of independent voters listed “the economy and inflation” as their primary concern.
Youngkin says his administration is addressing workforce participation and recovering jobs in Northern Virginia by working to lower taxes and “finding ways to make housing more accessible and affordable” in the expensive region. Traffic, a common complaint, should get easier to manage, he says, with the completion of some key road construction projects, such as 495 NEXT and the I-66 express lanes outside the Beltway.
“When you couple all that together, it’s all about making sure that Virginia is a great place to live, work, and raise a family,” he says.
Youngkin is also looking to higher education in the region for help in bringing in the next-generation workforce, including programs at George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College, and Virginia Tech’s planned Innovation Campus, which is expected to open in Alexandria’s Potomac Yard neighborhood in 2024.
“We have this huge opportunity for people to have great jobs, and we need to educate them and train them to do so,” he says.
Schools in the Spotlight
The governor has focused heavily on K–12 education during his first year in office, an emphasis stemming from his belief that Virginia schools were, historically, “the absolute envy of the whole nation.”
“People would move to Virginia in order to have their kids in Virginia schools,” Youngkin says. “Unfortunately, I think with the declining standards that happened across all of Virginia schools — and we just watched expectations be diminished, and we unfortunately watched families move away from Virginia faster than they moved to Virginia — we’ve got a chance to step back and just assess: Where do we stand?”
He’s referring to a report his office released in May, finding that students in Virginia are falling behind their peers in other states in reading and math. A Washington Post analysis suggests the report’s use of data is misleading. Still, Youngkin called for improvements by raising school standards and holding school districts accountable.
“Curriculum needs to be about high standards and high expectations,” he says. “We can raise the ceiling; we can also raise the floor while we’re at it and make sure that we have all the appropriate support capabilities and programs for folks that need a little extra help.”
Youngkin would like to see more innovation in K–12 education and points to his lab school initiative as an example of that. The $100 million plan is designed to create schools that are cooperative ventures between public institutions and colleges. Corporate and philanthropic groups can also be involved, he says.
“That brings innovation right into the public school system,” Youngkin says. “It’s one of the things I’m so excited about. Google, when they announced their expansion and further investment in Virginia, they also announced an investment in our school cooperation. We’re going to have a network of computer science schools across Virginia.”
The lab school program isn’t without its critics, however. Some argue the plan could take important funding away from traditional public schools, and many question whether private schools and community colleges are eligible for state funds.
In addition to calling for institutional collaboration, Youngkin turned heads on his very first day in office — January 15, 2022 — when he signed his first executive order, which banned the use of “inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory” in schools. Critical race theory is an academic theory based on the idea that race is a social construct embedded in legal systems and policies. Northern Virginia school systems have said this graduate school–level theoretical framework has not been taught in K–12 schools. Nevertheless, the debate over the theory became a flashpoint in the 2021 election.
Parents and educators who opposed Youngkin’s view felt that banning critical race theory could mean taking steps backward on incorporating important lessons about Black history in classrooms. But he doesn’t see it that way.
“If you are predetermining that somebody is biased, or racist, because of their race, or sex, or religion; if you’re teaching children that they inherently are privileged or oppressed because of their race, or their sex, or their religion; or you’re actually reaffirming the fact that folks are coming in with these preconceived views because of their race, their sex, their religion, there’s just no place for that in education,” Youngkin says.
How does he think history should be taught in schools to be “free of political indoctrination,” as the executive order states?
“We’re going to teach all of our history, the good and the bad,” he says. “And I think that what we need to do is step back as we review our history curriculum, which is happening right now, to make sure that we’re comprehensively teaching it. I think we can have the model history curriculum for the nation.
“[The] history curriculum didn’t identify George Washington as the father of our country,” Youngkin adds, a reference to a highly publicized error in the Virginia Board of Education’s updated 402-page History and Social Science Standards of Learning document, where a reference to Washington as the “father of our country” was deleted. Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said in August that this was a mistake.
“George Washington should be identified as the father of our country, and James Madison should continue to be identified as the father of the Constitution. Let’s just fix that. But let’s also make sure that we are comprehensively teaching all history,” Youngkin says. “This is an and moment, not an or moment.”
New Battle Lines
Days before our interview in September, Youngkin ignited another cultural battle when his administration proposed model policies (or guidelines) for how transgender students are treated in the state’s public schools.
His proposal, which then entered a 30-day period for public commenting, would require parents to be involved if a student wants to change gender identities at their school and states that the school should only change the legal name or sex in a student’s record if a “parent or eligible student submits a legal document, such as a birth certificate, state- or federal-issued identification, passport, or court order substantiating the student or former student’s change of legal name or sex,” according to the proposed policy. Otherwise, students would need to continue to use the pronouns, bathrooms, and play on sports teams of the sex assigned to them at birth.
The move has been met with outrage by many, who say it’s a huge step backward for transgender rights and forces schools to “out” students to their parents, some of whom may not be supportive of their child’s desire to change their gender identity in the school system.
Youngkin, however, focuses on the issue in relation to parents’ rights.
“I think it’s a very family-friendly approach here,” he says. “Every child deserves the engagement of their parents, and every parent deserves the ability to engage in their child’s life and their education and particularly in extraordinarily important decisions that they’re making. And parents should be engaged, in fact, not pushed out. … If parents and the child decide together, this is where they want to go, then the schools will, of course, provide the legal ramifications that they’re supposed to provide.”
Thousands of students across Northern Virginia walked out of class on September 27 in protest of the policy. According to the proposal, school districts are expected to adopt the model policies at the conclusion of the public comment period. Several school systems in Northern Virginia, however, say they are continuing to review the proposal’s guidelines, while others plan to stick with their existing policies. It remains unclear whether the model policies can be enforced.
Many school systems never adopted Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2021 model policies, which Youngkin’s proposal aims to overturn.
Will He Run for President?
Youngkin’s proposed policies put Virginia at the center of an emotionally charged debate over transgender rights. It also catapulted his public profile to new heights, even beyond the national attention he was already getting as a possible contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Youngkin downplays speculation about a presidential run, but it’s worth noting the governor has formed two political action committees, met with megadonors, and in the months before the midterm elections, campaigned for Republican gubernatorial nominees in Michigan, Nevada, Maine, Arizona, Georgia, and several other states.
Youngkin says he’s been asked to campaign because the issues that were important in last year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia are the same critical ones being confronted by other states around the country.
“It’s really interesting to hear voters from around the country identify the exact same issues that [Virginians] were really focused on last year — cost of living top of the pile, and the inflationary environment that we’re in, which has really been caused by bad policy decisions coming out of Washington,” he says. “It’s the same topics of making sure parents have a primary role in their kids’ education and that standards are high. … And third is, of course, public safety. And this continues to be a just massive problem across the whole country. … These are the issues we’re seeing nationally, and I think these are issues that are on the minds of most voters.”
Youngkin raised eyebrows by campaigning for Arizona’s Kari Lake, who continues to deny the results of the 2020 presidential election. He also hit the trail for incumbent Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, however, who earned the ire of former President Donald Trump when he refused to help overturn the 2020 election results in his battleground state.
Last year, Youngkin accepted Trump’s endorsement, but the former president never campaigned for him. Youngkin has acknowledged that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected. The unusual way he has managed to thread the needle between opposing factions of the Republican party likely aided Youngkin’s win in Virginia and has made him an appealing figure to some in the party who view him as a possible presidential candidate. Virginia governors can only serve one consecutive term; Youngkin’s ends in January 2026.
Presented with the idea of running for president in 2024, Youngkin says, “I am so focused on 2022. I have to say, I find it to be a statement for where we are politically, where 20 months ago, no one knew who I was, and I’m brand new to this political world. … I am honored by all of this, but I am so focused on being the best governor I can be.”
Asked if that means he’s not ruling out a run, Youngkin repeats, “I am so focused on being the best governor I can be.”