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Virginia's governor forges ahead on divisive topics while wooing businesses

Last year, Glenn Youngkin embraced heated debates on cultural issues while running to be governor of Virginia, particularly the supposed influence of critical race theory in public education.

The platform led to victory, and the former co-CEO of the Carlyle Group took office in January. Since then, he has treaded a line between using his business background to woo corporate America to the commonwealth while not straying from the divisive issues that got him elected.

That tactic has proven complicated and will likely be even thornier in the months ahead with abortion taking center stage in Virginia and elsewhere following the Supreme Court’s decision Friday to overturn its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

During a Yahoo Finance Live interview last week, when pressed on his focus on critical race theory and the blowback it has engendered in the business community, Youngkin himself pushed back by saying: “I don't think it's a balance." He then reiterated his position on stopping critical race theory in detail and added, "We can do both.”

The conversation came on Thursday on the eve of the landmark abortion decision, and it touched on critical race theory — a framework that views slavery and decades of racism as long-standing facets of U.S. institutions. The term, once mostly used by legal scholars, has become a lightning rod for those who reject the notion of inherent racism in U.S. society and don't want K-12 schools to teach the theory.

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin makes remarks at a press conference with Boeing President and CEO Dave Calhoun, Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, Rep. Don Beyer, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, and other community officials to announce a new partnership with the Commonwealth of Virginia and Virginia Tech, in Arlington, VA. 
(Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin at a press conference touting Boeing investments in the state in Arlington in June. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Youngkin says his focus on race and schools aims to remove divisive topics and teach "all of our history." Meanwhile, his 2021 opponent — and others since then — have likened the effort to a “racist dog whistle” that seeks to silence Black authors and other voices who point out inequality in American society.

Corporate America is caught in the debate; Lego is a key example. The toymaker's arrival in Virginia was touted widely by Youngkin even as the company accidentally released a document showing internal agita about how to tackle possible questions around critical race theory.

Lego was ready to underline its support for groups “that support Black children and educate all children about racial equality” — thus distancing itself from Youngkin's position.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - JUNE 15: The governor of Virginia Glenn Youngkin (C) and the CEO of The Lego Group Niels B. Christiansen (R) speak during a press event where The LEGO Group is announcing to build a US $1 billion, carbon-neutral run factory in Virginia, USA. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images  for The LEGO Group )
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, left, and the CEO of The Lego Group Niels B. Christiansen during a press event announcing a new $1 billion factory set to be built in Virginia. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for The LEGO Group)

‘People should have safe access to quality health care regardless of where they live’

Youngkin meanwhile has gone after critical race theory with his first executive order as governor banning the study of systemic racism even though it wasn't even on Virginia’s K-12 curriculum. He also established a "tip line" allowing parents to report schools teaching controversial topics.

The governor also moved quickly on the abortion issue Friday. During an event with the Washington Post minutes after the court’s decision, he pledged to pursue a new law to ban abortion after 15 weeks in his state.

For now, abortion remains legal in Virginia with many Democrats — who control the state's senate — pledging to block their governor’s efforts. Abortion was not a central issue during Youngkin's 2021 campaign, and polling has shown a strong majority in the state favor abortion rights.

Youngkin says his focus on having fewer abortions in his state reflects a moderate stand in his politically divided state. Other states, especially in the South, have already banned abortions or are moving to do so.

Lego isn’t waiting for the political debate to resolve itself. In a statement to Yahoo Finance, the company announced that it, like many other companies in recent days, will pay if their employees need to travel to access medical procedures like abortions.

“The LEGO Group believes people should have safe access to quality health care regardless of where they live. That’s why, as of Friday, all LEGO Group employees enrolled in our health plans are eligible for up to $4000 in travel and lodging reimbursement for any covered medical procedure that’s not available within 100 miles of their home,” the statement read.

But the company said the news last week likely won't change its decision to locate a new manufacturing plant in the state.“ This is a long-term, multi-generational investment [that] we remain committed to building,” the company said.

The back and forth comes as blue states move forward with plans to use abortion access woo businesses that may be wary of operating someplace where abortion is illegal or deeply restricted.

Youngkin has also touted two other companies that recently relocated their headquarters to his state: Boeing (BA) and Raytheon (RTX). A spokesperson for Boeing declined to comment on the abortion ruling while a Raytheon representative didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In recent days, Youngkin has forged ahead with economic development plans while praising the abortion decision and insisting a bipartisan solution is possible in Virginia.

He says his long business career has been an asset in the governor’s mansion. “I don't believe that this is a moment where we have to say it's either this or that,” he noted.

Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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