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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Striking a tone of bipartisanship and optimism, Virginia’s new governor, Glenn Youngkin, pledged to “restore trust in government and to restore power to the people” after he was sworn in to office Saturday.
“Today we stand together on behalf of Virginians who’ve never lost faith, even when they suffered loss. Of Virginians who have not stopped dreaming of a better life, even in the midst of trials and tribulation," he said in front of the historic state Capitol to thousands of enthusiastic spectators. “My fellow Virginians, the spirit of Virginia is alive and well. And together we will strengthen it.”
“No matter who you voted for, I pledge to be your advocate, your voice, your governor,” said the Republican, a former private equity executive and newcomer to politics.
Youngkin’s inaugural speech was part of a weekend of pomp and circumstance in Richmond as Virginia’s newly elected GOP leaders took office. Attorney General Jason Miyares and Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears also were sworn in during the outdoor ceremony.
The moment opened a new chapter of governance in a state where Democrats had spent the past two years in full control of government and occupied the governor's mansion for the past eight.
Youngkin acknowledged the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, including the more than 15,000 Virginians who have died, and pledged to lead the state to a “new and better day." While Youngkin encourages those eligible to get vaccinated, among his first acts as governor was ending a vaccine requirement for state workers.
He also sounded his campaign themes, pledging to cut taxes, “remove politics from the classroom,” raise teacher and law enforcement pay, and boost the economy. As omicron infections fill hospitals with unvaccinated patients in Virginia and around the country, he vowed to keep children in schools, emphasizing the importance of in-person education and acknowledging the toll virtual schooling has taken on working parents, especially mothers.
“We know that when our children don’t go to school it harms their learning and development. So let me be clear — we must keep our children in school five days a week,” he said.
References to Virginia's long history and America's Founding Fathers were woven through the address, but Youngkin also acknowledged the country's “chapters of great injustice."
He credited “barrier-breakers” like former Gov. Doug Wilder, the nation's first elected Black governor, with leading the way for the inauguration of Miyares and Earle-Sears, who both made history themselves. Miyares is first Latino to serve in the position and Earle-Sears is the first woman of color to serve in a statewide office.
Youngkin said their election showed that “Virginia is big enough for the hopes and dreams of a diverse people.”
Shortly before the ceremony began, Virginia’s former governors met with Youngkin and outgoing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam inside the Capitol. Every living governor but Youngkin’s opponent in last year's election, Terry McAuliffe, was in attendance. McAuliffe tweeted that he and his wife were “quarantining due to a close COVID contact in the interest of health and safety" and wished Youngkin well.
Youngkin, Northam and their wives — Suzanne Youngkin and Pam Northam — also participated in a cordial Executive Mansion key exchange ceremony. Northam, who like all Virginia governors was prohibited from seeking a second consecutive term, assured Youngkin that the key card he handed over still worked, despite having been chewed up by the family's dog, Pearl.
Youngkin is the state's 74th governor and the first Republican to hold the office since Bob McDonnell left it in 2014.
The 55-year-old former collegiate basketball player, who accumulated a personal fortune during a career at the Carlyle Group, defeated McAuliffe last year in part by seizing on parental frustrations about school closures and references to race in classrooms. While Donald Trump endorsed him, the former president never campaigned with him, enabling Youngkin to mobilize the GOP base without turning off suburban voters in a state that has long trended blue.
Voters also elected a GOP majority to the House of Delegates, leaving the Democrats with just a narrow 21-19 majority in the state Senate as a check on Republican ambitions. Earle-Sears will preside over that chamber, with the ability to cast tie-breaking votes.
Senate Democrats congratulated the governor and said they look forward to working with him but signaled their willingness to fight to protect their party's achievements.
“Let me be clear: Senate Democrats have no intention rolling back two years of tremendous progress for all Virginians — not only a select few,” caucus chair Mamie Locke said in a statement.
Saturday's ceremony included a traditional blessing of the ground by representatives of Virginia’s Indian tribes, and a prayer led by Youngkin, who made his Christian faith a key part of his campaign.
A celebratory parade kicked off after the ceremony. Youngkin then headed to his Capitol office, where he signed nine executive orders and two executive directives covering a range of topics, from ending the vaccine requirement to establishing a commission on human trafficking. He also ordered Virginia's removal from a carbon cap-and-trade program, a move whose full implications were not immediately clear.
The appointments of his cabinet secretaries, who took their oaths of office at the Executive Mansion, remain contingent on legislative approval, with at least one opposed by many Senate Democrats.
Saturday's planned festivities included a large downtown party featuring the Zac Brown Band in lieu of what's typically a more formal affair. Attendees were encouraged to wear patriotic colors, cowboy boots or a “Glenn vest,” like the red fleece type the candidate favored while campaigning.
Youngkin also helped Friday to landscape an area along the Richmond Slave Trail, which commemorates how the city became a major hub in the trading of enslaved people before the Civil War. He also took part in a $10,000-a-ticket candlelit black-tie reception held at a science museum Friday evening.
A prayer breakfast preceded the inauguration Saturday morning, and the weekend was scheduled to wrap up Sunday with an open house at the Executive Mansion.