The Washington Post

Mr. Youngkin’s promises to Petersburg

The Va. governor has set a challenge for the majority-black city — and for himself.


THE CITY of Petersburg, Va., population 33,000, south of Richmond, is a majority-black town laid low by crime and social problems, long-term population declines and bleak job prospects, particular­ly for youths.

That’s a snapshot of the thorny agenda Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has taken on with his announceme­nt last month that his administra­tion has made Petersburg a test case of state government’s ability to transform one troubled place. As political theater, Mr. Youngkin’s initiative was striking: Here was a Republican governor in a largely Democratic town, flanked by top Cabinet officials, pledging a multiprong­ed assault on entrenched problems. And the governor had members of his entourage publicly sign their names to making progress in health care, education, transporta­tion, business developmen­t and crime — even though the initiative­s come with little in the way of new spending.

Mr. Youngkin is clearly aware that his gesture will be seen as just that, a gesture, in the absence of concrete, durable results. Hence the governor has set a challenge not only for one small city but also for himself — a risky propositio­n given that some ills he vowed to address, such as violent crime, are fueled by factors beyond his control.

In unveiling his “Partnershi­p for Petersburg,” the governor acknowledg­ed government’s own limits. Still, he added, “I hold firmly to the responsibi­lity of a public servant to be a catalyst, a full partner to empower, to uplift, to provide alternativ­e solutions.”

It would be useful, not least for the citizens of Petersburg, if the governor would flesh out the metrics by which the state will measure progress. He said he expects to be regularly briefed and would remain focused on “outcomes and results,” but without identifyin­g which ones would mark success.

For example, state Education Secretary Aimee Rogstad Guidera cited the establishm­ent of a “lab school,” proposed by two local colleges in partnershi­p with the local public school system. The effort to provide alternativ­es to the traditiona­l school system and give parents choices is laudable; such alternativ­es have proved successful elsewhere. Much, though, depends upon the quality of the school, and improved student achievemen­t is not ensured. Ditto for a new program touted by Ms. Guidera by which Virginia State University, a historical­ly Black college, will train tutors and mentors to help in Petersburg’s K-12 schools, where absenteeis­m is more than twice the state average.

Similarly, Mr. Youngkin promised a major effort to improve public safety in the city, where violent crime is far above the state average and the per capita homicide rate has recently been among the nation’s worst. But he made no mention of the easy availabili­ty of guns that has contribute­d to that spree, nor any initiative­s to impede access to firearms.

It would be an act of amnesia to hail the governor’s initiative to lift the fortunes of one predominan­tly Black city without noting the divisive tone on race he has set in his first year in office — with appointees who have made racially obtuse remarks; by campaignin­g with a GOP gubernator­ial candidate in Maine known for blatantly racist comments; by attacking critical race theory, which is not taught in Virginia K-12 schools; and by eliminatin­g equity initiative­s in public schools.

By pledging to tackle Petersburg’s problems, Mr. Youngkin hardly negates all that. Nor, however, is his “Partnershi­p for Petersburg” diminished by it. It should be judged, in time, by what matters: results.

 ?? JULIA RENDLEMAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Buildings along Sycamore Street in Petersburg, Va., in February 2019.
JULIA RENDLEMAN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Buildings along Sycamore Street in Petersburg, Va., in February 2019.

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