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After 10 days in office, Virginia Gov. Youngkin is facing blowback over new policies

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

It's only been 10 days since Republican Glenn Youngkin was sworn in as Virginia's governor, but his administration is already facing lawsuits and political blowback over new policies.

Joining us now to talk it over is Ben Paviour. He's the state politics reporter at member station VPM in Richmond. Thanks for joining us, Ben.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Asma.

KHALID: So we are seeing a battle play out in Virginia that, frankly, we have seen in other parts of the country too - masks in schools. What's going on here?

PAVIOUR: Literally hours after he was sworn in, Youngkin signed an order reversing a mask mandate in schools signed by his predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. Youngkin's order says parents can decide if they want their kids to wear masks. It's already facing a couple of lawsuits, and the gist of their complaints are that Youngkin is overstepping his constitutional authority.

KHALID: Got it. So Ben, while these lawsuits make their way through courts, what kind of actual effect is this having in schools?

PAVIOUR: Many school districts in more conservative counties are going with Youngkin's order. Some districts are sticking with universal mask mandates. Parents have also organized. In Loudoun County in northern Virginia, there were parents cheering as they sent their children without masks. And all this comes at a time when many school districts are short-staffed and when the pandemic continues to infect over 10,000 Virginians a day. But Youngkin and Virginia's new attorney general, Jason Miyares, are arguing in court that he's within his bounds.

KHALID: So Ben, I want to ask you a little bit more about this new attorney general because he has also made some controversial moves since taking office just over a week ago. Tell us a little bit more about that.

PAVIOUR: Before he was sworn in, Miyares fired around 30 staffers in the attorney general's office, and that includes Tim Heaphy, who was served as the top lawyer at the University of Virginia. He's been on a leave of absence from the university working for the U.S. House panel investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Miyares' staff says the firing is completely unrelated to that, but a lot of Democrats are pretty skeptical.

KHALID: So I want to step back for a moment. Glenn Youngkin came to power as a sort of establishment Republican politician, a businessman who spoke to suburban families. And throughout his campaign, he seemed to deliberately keep a distance from Donald Trump. But now that he is in power, it seems like he's leaning into a lot of the same themes as the former president.

PAVIOUR: Absolutely - I mean, in the campaign, Youngkin gave off this kind of dad-next-door image. He was often upbeat. And at the same time, he painted this bleak picture, for instance, of schools where students, he said, of different races were being pitted against each other. He didn't provide much evidence for his claims, but now Youngkin's ordered his top education officials to root out what he's called divisive concepts from public schools.

Youngkin's also set up an email address in his office for parents. He told conservative talk show host John Fredericks that it's designed for parents to report problems with schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLENN YOUNGKIN: Any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated, where their children are not being respected, where there are inherently divisive practices in their schools.

PAVIOUR: And we're seeing this kind of rhetoric in other states, too. Take Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas, who is just one of many Republicans up for reelection this year. Last week, for example, he rolled out a plan for a parents' bill of rights. And in Virginia, Youngkin's critics say this is a textbook case of a racist, dog whistle politics. Lamont Bagby, a Democrat who heads the Legislature's Black Caucus, accused Youngkin of declaring war on Black history.

KHALID: That is Ben Paviour from member station VPM in Richmond. Thanks so much.

PAVIOUR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Paviour