“This is a big day,” Youngkin told reporters after the event at St. Petersburg’s public library. “It’s much more than words. There are many actions that need to accompany this, but I feel incredibly encouraged by coming together.”
The event brought together hundreds of leaders from Petersburg — a heavily Democratic, mostly black city that has suffered deep financial problems — with most of Virginia’s Republican executive branch. It was a notable turn of events for a government that has drawn criticism for inciting racial segregation, particularly for its crusades against “justice” in school programs and against critical race theory, a framework for the study of race that does not the curriculum of Virginia schools.
Mayor Samuel Parham, a longtime Democrat, lavished his praise on Youngkin, and the two men said the effort was the result of several conversations they had about how to cure the city’s ailments.
“Governor Youngkin is the first to come out here and say he’s going to put all his resources into a city to move the dial and create prosperity here in the city of Petersburg,” Parham told reporters. “Democrats and Republicans working together — that’s what makes Virginia so special.”
Petersburg has long suffered from problems that state officials are struggling to manage. Six years ago, the city nearly went bankrupt and had to shut down essential services, prompting Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) to send the Secretary of Finance to personally inspect Petersburg’s finances.
City on the brink: Petersburg cannot pay its bills, time is of the essence
This situation prompted the General Assembly to create a mechanism for the State Comptroller to periodically review municipal accounts across the state and flag potential problems before they become as bad as Petersburg’s.
Most of the financial resources cited by Youngkin and his cabinet Monday were either approved by the General Assembly at this year’s session or are federal projects that are long in the works. And Youngkin made it clear during the presentation that the “Partnership for Petersburg” touted on signs around the building — signs paid for by Youngkin’s political action committee, Spirit of Virginia — is not government handouts.
“Let me be clear,” he told the crowd. “I don’t think the government should regulate everything. But I stand by the responsibility of a public servant to be a catalyst, a full partner to empower, uplift and offer alternative solutions.”
State Democrats seemed a little surprised by Youngkin’s large rollout, but were quick to point out that many of its components have been in place for some time.
“As usual, the governor recognizes the work of others,” Del said. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth), Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, via text message. “I’m glad that at least Governor Youngkin is recognizing that the government can work to bring people together to solve problems.”
Youngkin said the effort depended on residents working together in a public-private partnership, with the government stepping in to facilitate this. The initiative, which aid workers said has been in the works for weeks if not months, consists of six priority areas: education, public safety, health care, transportation, economic development and community-religious-leadership relations.
Cabinet secretaries representing each area presented their specific goals, outlined several initiatives to achieve those goals, and identified stakeholders who would work together as partners, such as the YMCA, church groups, and city officials.
After each presentation, the Secretaries and Stakeholders ceremoniously signed a Letter of Commitment setting out their commitments.
Education Secretary Aimee Rogstad Guidera, for example, promoted a proposal by Virginia State University — which is a historically black college — and Richard Bland College to create a “laboratory school” in Petersburg in partnership with the local K-12 school system. Laboratory schools were an important Youngkin initiative; The AGM earmarked $100 million for such projects in the coming fiscal year, but did not approve any additional funding.
Guidera also announced a new program in which the state of Virginia will train people to serve as mentors and tutors in the Petersburg school system, and said the YMCA is committed to offering special programs in schools to help children get additional support to obtain.
“We are very excited about laboratory schools,” said Kenneth Pritchett, chairman of the Petersburg School Board, afterwards. Petersburg schools are among the most troubled in the state, with absenteeism 2.5 times the national average.
“We thank the governor for bringing everyone in the Commonwealth of Virginia together for Petersburg,” Pritchett said. “We needed change, like yesterday.”
Youngkin and Parham said the seed of the effort went back to a meeting in February where state and local officials discussed the city’s problems with violence. Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R) said Monday the city has the highest per capita homicide rate in Virginia, more than three times the state average.
Miyares said he asked two federal prosecutors assigned to the area to focus on violent crimes in Richmond and Petersburg.
Since April, the Virginia State Police have allocated additional resources to Petersburg, which Travis C. Christian, the city’s police chief, is credited with leading to a reduction in violent crime. Christian said Public Safety Minister Robert Mosier calls him at least once a week “to make sure we’re okay here in the city of Petersburg.”
Among the priorities listed by Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller are several federal programs that have been in the works for a long time. These include a $58 million grant to Virginia and North Carolina to improve rail service between Richmond and Raleigh, which will benefit Petersburg, and federal money to improve the local Amtrak train station.
One Democratic lawmaker speaking at the event was Senator Joseph D. Morrissey, whose district includes Petersburg and is seen as a potential alternate vote for Republicans looking to pass tougher abortion restrictions next year. Democrats hold a 21-19 majority in the Senate, but Morrissey has signaled he could be open to restrictions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
“I look forward to working with you, Governor. You told me eight months ago that you would make Petersburg a center of your administration. You did it – thank you,” said Morrissey to applause from the crowd.
Former Petersburg delegate Lashrecse D. Aird (D), who is challenging Morrissey for his Senate seat in 2023, later said she hoped local leaders’ faith would be rewarded, noting that Youngkin was widely seen as having ambitions for a be considered a national office.
“He spent his first year in office pitting white against black because it was politically advantageous,” Aird said. “I just hope his new national ambitions aren’t the reason he’s now looking for… one of the blackest places in the Commonwealth.”
After the ceremonies, Youngkin was asked by a reporter how he would measure whether the partnership was successful. Each of the initiatives, he replied, had “key measurable results” that would show whether the situation in Petersburg had improved.
“We do things that focus on outcomes and outcomes,” Youngkin said. The signing of the pledges by cabinet secretaries was “not for show but for accountability,” he said, adding that he expected to receive regular reports on progress.
Two cities share a name, water and a library. But you’re in big trouble.
Youngkin said he intends to use Petersburg as a pilot program for a model that could be taken to locations across the state. But he also made it clear that part of the reason this one came first is because he felt a close connection with Mayor Parham – who stood alongside Youngkin as he spoke to reporters.
“The mayor and I just hit it off,” Youngkin said.
When asked later about becoming a Republican, Parham laughed heartily. “I have a special man right there in Governor Youngkin,” he said. “I stand behind him, he behind me.”