Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin reaches out to Black voters while stoking racial division


RICHMOND — A few days after announcing a sweeping initiative to aid the majority-Black city of Petersburg, Va., Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) agreed to travel to Maine to campaign for a GOP gubernatorial candidate who has called people of color “the enemy” and said drug dealers were coming to his state to “impregnate a young White girl.”

That kind of dizzying turnabout on messaging related to race is becoming a hallmark of Youngkin’s administration. He has gone to historically Black colleges and universities to tout his plans for lab schools, but crusaded against the concept of “racial equity” in education policy.

He has curried favor with Black ministers but appointed a state health commissioner who said he felt discussing racism alienates White people.

He poses for photos with Black business leaders but vetoed a bipartisan bill to study whether women- and minority-owned businesses get fair treatment in state contracting.

“I just have not been able to parse apart why he’s doing this,” said Jatia Wrighten, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in Black legislators. “I don’t understand the messaging.”

Each end of the Youngkin spectrum would be remarkable on its own: On the one hand, a White Republican devoting time and resources to Black communities that have shown him little support; on the other, a statewide politician consistently agitating racially inflammatory issues in a diverse blue-leaning Virginia.

Taken together — in a governor and potential 2024 presidential candidate who has pledged to seek unity — the combination has confounded Democrats and left his intentions open to interpretation.

Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R), the first Black woman elected statewide in Virginia history, said she doesn’t see a disconnect between Youngkin’s words and actions. Instead, she suggested that he acknowledges the vestiges of past wrongs but is determined to move beyond them.

“At some point … the Democrats who are Black especially have to say, ‘We’ve come a long way … You’re business owners, you’re lawyers, you’re doctors,” she said. “I mean, when do we stop playing these silly games and just say, ‘Let’s do what’s right for the people of Virginia?’ ”

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Youngkin leaned into White grievance about race during his campaign last year. He stirred up GOP crowds by promising to ban critical race theory in schools, even though the university-level framework for studying the roots of racism was not on Virginia’s K-12 curriculum.

He kept up the rhetoric after taking office in January, when it was no longer necessary to build support in the base of Virginia’s Republican Party. But at the same time, Youngkin has also worked to build connections among Black constituents — attending a meeting of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, for instance, and holding a ceremony with Black leaders at the Executive Mansion to honor Earle-Sears’s historic election.

However, Youngkin also removed a painting of civil rights icon Barbara Johns from the mansion, though VPM public radio reported Friday that a drawing of Johns remains in another spot in the dwelling. The radio station also reported that a revamped tour of the mansion taken on Friday made no mention of slavery; former governors Ralph Northam (D) and Terry McAuliffe (D) had both made a priority out of telling the history of enslaved people who labored at the home.

State Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), the state’s highest-ranking Black lawmaker, sees the governor’s outreach not as a sincere effort to improve the lives of Black Virginians or even woo them to the GOP, but to soften his image with the White moderates he’ll need if he runs for president.

“Anything that he does that even reflects concern for Black and Brown people is to provide cover for himself,” she said. “He’s trying to wear the sheep’s clothing. … He says he wants to be governor for all Virginians, but his actions belie that.”

What’s in a word? Youngkin takes aim at ‘equity’

Asked about the criticism, Youngkin spokesman Rob Damschen said in an email, “There will always be some in Virginia who seek to sow division for purely political reasons against a Governor rising in popularity who is keeping his promises to all Virginians to make the Commonwealth the best place to live, work and raise a family.”

Some of Youngkin’s outreach to Black communities has been low-profile. In late June, the Museum of the Bible in Washington hosted a private “Blessing of the Elders” event honoring some of the nation’s most celebrated Black pastors. Several speakers at a banquet before the ceremony addressed the wealthy benefactors who made the evening possible: Youngkin and his wife, Suzanne, seated at table no. 1.

Pastor Tony Lowden, who is Black and has ministered to former president Jimmy Carter at his church in Plains, Ga., mentioned Youngkin after noting that there were always White supporters who helped during the Civil Rights movement. “I just want to thank you, governor, and Suzanne, I just want to thank you as well for being in the fight with us,” Lowden said.

The event in Petersburg last month was far more high-profile, drawing scores of Black city officials and community leaders along with much of the governor’s Cabinet. Youngkin said he was making an extraordinary effort to marshal state and local resources to address the city’s woes “because Petersburg matters.”

Youngkin announces unusual ‘partnership’ to fix problems in Petersburg

The city just south of Richmond has the highest concentration of Black residents in the state and has suffered from years of financial woes, high crime rates and low academic performance. Youngkin’s “Partnership for Petersburg” is aimed at addressing those and other issues by having state agencies, city departments and civic groups work together — such as enlisting nearby Virginia State University to train mentors who can tutor public school students.

It involves few new dollars; most related funding, such as federal money for fixing the local train station and improving the rail corridor, was already in place. Youngkin touted $29 million for upgrading the city’s Poor Creek water treatment facility without mentioning that it was his predecessor, Northam, who proposed that money in the state budget.

But Youngkin’s sweeping initiative drew praise from one Black leader after another. “Gov. Glenn Youngkin has led by example, bringing communities together through meaningful partnerships and hard work,” said Rosa Atkins, a former Northam appointee who Youngkin chose to run his Office of Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion. Youngkin renamed that office to put “Opportunity” in place of a word that sticks in his craw — “Equity.”

Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham, a longtime Democrat, described a personal relationship with Youngkin and praised the Republican for coming to the city’s aid. “We prayed for this moment for Petersburg to turn the corner, and we prayed for a governor in Gov. Youngkin that believes in our city of Petersburg,” Parham said as he and Youngkin ceremonially signed a pledge to work together.

Many Democrats seemed torn between wanting help for the troubled city and being suspicious of Youngkin’s motives. House Minority Leader Del. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth), who is Black, said he believes Petersburg’s suffering was being used as a prop.

“We have to call out this blatant, cynical use of race when it’s convenient for him,” Scott said, noting that Youngkin has literally removed the word “equity” from state school curriculums and policies. “And he has the cojones to then go to Black people and say, ‘Hey, I’m with you?’ … I really feel sorry for the people in [the Black] community who are falling for the ‘Okey-doke,’ who are falling for the banana-in-the-tailpipe trick.”

One element of the Petersburg plan has been a consistent emphasis of Youngkin’s: support for the state’s historically Black colleges and universities. He pledged strong funding even before taking office, and has regularly appeared with HBCU presidents to help tout his call for lab schools, or partnerships between institutions of higher learning and K-12 school systems.

At one public event, Hampton University’s longtime president, William Harvey, rose and embraced Youngkin. The governor’s office pointed out that Youngkin has attended a tech summit at Virginia Union University and championed additional dollars for security at even the state’s private HBCUs.

But Youngkin stirred resentment when he proposed a state budget amendment to take $10 million from aid to undocumented college students and transfer the money to HBCUs, with several Democrats accusing him of pitting Brown Virginians against Black Virginians.

DACA college students to lose money to Virginia HBCUs

Del. Candi Mundon King (D-Prince William) spoke up during floor debate on the amendment, which eventually passed the House on a party-line vote and with two Democratic votes in the Senate.

“There’s a disturbing trend I see here — any bad idea, unfunded mandate, any type of circus act that the governor wants to try on Virginians, Virginia families and students, y’all throw in historically Black colleges and universities,” King said on the House floor. “And as a proud graduate of Norfolk State University … I would like you to stop it.”

In a recent interview, King said she continues to be troubled by what she sees as Youngkin using elements of the Black community when it suits him politically but failing to deliver tangible goods. As an example, she cited his efforts during last year’s campaign to woo voters from Northern Virginia’s community of Ethiopian immigrants and others from the African diaspora.

Why some Ethiopian voters in Northern Virginia swung for Youngkin – and why it might spell trouble for Democrats elsewhere

Youngkin recently tweeted a tribute to the African diaspora, and the private Virginia African Diaspora Committee thanked him for continued support. But King pointed out that when the General Assembly considered a bill this year to establish a state African Diaspora Advisory Board to highlight the community’s issues, the measure died in the Republican House and Youngkin made no effort to support it.

“He will make overtures, make promises, say things publicly and then seemingly in the dark not do the work to deliver,” King said.

Wrighten, the VCU professor, said she sees a disconnect in Youngkin’s desire to be seen solving problems while not acknowledging what really caused them. She cited his creation of a tip line encouraging parents to report school officials for teaching history in a way they find objectionable, which has led Democrats to accuse Youngkin of trying to “whitewash” the state’s complicated legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation.

“It’s fascinating to me that you’re literally trying to address some of these issues that are the result of institutionalized racism without even acknowledging that it exists in the first place,” Wrighten said. “That to me begs the question of what are the motivations behind this.”

Tension over role of racism in public health strains Va. agency under Youngkin

And Youngkin has drawn criticism for standing by an appointee to the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors who, as a student in the 1970s, hosted a campus visit from a scientist who claimed Black people were genetically inferior to White people.

More recently, Youngkin has drawn sharp criticism for his willingness to travel to Maine on Sept. 7 to campaign for Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage, a former two-term governor with a history of making racist remarks. At one point during his second term in 2016, lawmakers in both parties questioned LePage’s fitness to hold office, the Portland Press Herald reported at the time.

Asked on Wednesday about the decision to campaign for LePage, Youngkin said he was unfamiliar with the widely reported remarks, and said that he is simply trying to help Republicans win in this fall’s elections.

Just a few days before agreeing to go to Maine, Youngkin headed to Newport News to tour Black-owned businesses at Patrick Henry Mall.

A former private equity executive and political neophyte, Youngkin was clearly in his element as he talked exuberantly with business owners — including a 10-year-old boy who started a T-shirt company. Youngkin took notes, and was trailed throughout by photographers and a TV camera.

Youngkin said his outreach is sincere — and a product of his mind-set as a political newcomer. “One of the reasons why Virginians elected me is to not do the same thing over and over again and get subpar, if completely unacceptable, outcomes, but to try new things, and oh, by the way, partner into communities that oftentimes are overlooked,” he said after the mall visit.

But Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), the head of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said the event raised a question: “What have you actually done for Black business?”

He pointed out that in this year’s legislative session, Youngkin vetoed a bill sponsored by Del. Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William) that would have helped them by studying racial and gender disparities in the state’s contract awards. It had passed the General Assembly with extensive bipartisan support.

In his veto message, Youngkin said that “taxpayer dollars should not be used to highlight the failings of previous administrations.” Instead, he wrote, “we must use our crucial resources to eliminate these disparities and to cultivate an environment that is conducive to higher wages, employment, and business ownership for minorities and women.”

Still, the visit seemed to have a strong effect on some. Several days later, barber JoeDon Lankford of B.M.C. Kutz was still buzzing about it.

“The fact that he came to spend time with each one of us — I’m not a city guy, so this is, like, big. This is, like, president big to me,” Lankford, 38, said. Youngkin had given him a personalized Black Business Month proclamation and commemorative “challenge coin,” as he did with other merchants.

“He’s coming to make a change,” Lankford said. “Imagine how many people would vote for a guy who’s actually making a change.”

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