Youngkin announces unusual ‘partnership’ to solve problems in the city of Petersburg

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PETERSBURG, Va. — Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) said Monday he was committing his administration to an unusual partnership with this economically struggling and violence-prone town south of Richmond, to revitalize its fortunes and improve quality of life residents.

In an extraordinary two-hour ceremony, Youngkin and seven of his cabinet secretaries detailed 42 initiatives they pledged to undertake with Petersburg officials and religious, civic and educational leaders.

“It’s a great day,” Youngkin told reporters after the event at the Petersburg Public Library. “It’s much more than words. There’s a lot of action that needs to go along with this, but I feel incredibly encouraged by the closeness.

The event brought together hundreds of leaders from Petersburg — a heavily Democratic, majority-black city that has suffered severe financial hardship — with most Republican executives from Virginia. It was a remarkable turning point for an administration that has drawn criticism for stirring up the racial divide, particularly for its crusades against “equity” in school curricula and against critical race theory, a framework for studying the breed that is not on the Virginia school curriculum.

Mayor Samuel Parham, a longtime Democrat, praised Youngkin profusely, and the two men said the effort was the product of several conversations they had about how to cure the ailments of the city.

“Governor Youngkin is the first to step down here and say he’s going to put all his resources into a city to move the dial to create prosperity here in the city of Petersburg,” Parham told reporters. “Democrats and Republicans work together – that’s what makes Virginia special.”

St. Petersburg has long suffered from problems that state officials have struggled to resolve. Six years ago the city nearly went bankrupt and had to close key services, leading Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) to send the Secretary of State for Finance to personally examine Petersburg’s finances.

City on the brink: St. Petersburg can’t pay its bills and time is running out

This situation led the General Assembly to create a mechanism for the State Auditor to periodically review the state’s municipal records, flagging potential problems before they became as serious as those in Petersburg.

Most of the financial resources cited Monday by Youngkin and his cabinet were either approved by the General Assembly during this year’s session or are long-running federal projects. And Youngkin made it clear during the presentation that the “Partnership for Petersburg” touted on signs all around the building — signs paid for by Youngkin’s political action committee, Spirit of Virginia — is not a government gift. .

“Let me be clear,” he told the crowd. “I don’t believe the government should fix everything. But I hold strongly to the responsibility of a public servant to be a catalyst, a full partner in empowering, uplifting, providing alternative solutions.

State Democrats seemed somewhat taken aback by Youngkin’s big rollout, but were quick to point out that many of its components had been around for some time.

“As usual, the governor takes credit for the work of others,” House Minority Leader Del said. Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) via text message. “I’m glad that, at the very least, Governor Youngkin recognizes that the government can work to bring people together to solve the problems.”

Youngkin said the effort depended on the collaboration of local residents in a public-private partnership, with the government stepping in to facilitate. The initiative, which aides say has been underway for weeks or even months, includes six priority areas: education, public safety, health care, transportation, economic development and community relations. community and religious leaders.

Cabinet secretaries representing each region presented their specific goals, outlined several initiatives to achieve those goals, and introduced stakeholders who would work as partners, such as the YMCA, church groups, and city officials.

After each presentation, the secretaries and speakers solemnly signed a pledge describing their commitments.

Education Secretary Aimee Rogstad Guidera, for example, touted a proposal by Virginia State University — which is a historically black college — and Richard Bland College to establish a “laboratory school” in Petersburg in partnership with the local K-12 school system. Laboratory schools were a major initiative of Youngkin; the General Assembly has earmarked $100 million for such projects in the coming fiscal year, but has not approved funding beyond that.

Guidera also announced a new program in which Virginia State will train people to serve as mentors and tutors in the Petersburg school system, and said the YMCA is committed to providing special programs in schools to help children to get additional support.

“We’re excited about the lab schools,” Petersburg School Board Chairman Kenneth Pritchett said afterwards. St. Petersburg schools are among the most struggling in the state, with 2.5 times the state average for absenteeism.

“We thank the governor for bringing everyone in the Commonwealth of Virginia together for Petersburg,” Pritchett said. “We needed a change, like yesterday.”

Youngkin and Parham said the seeds of the effort go back to a meeting in February where state and local officials discussed the city’s violence issues. State Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R), speaking on Monday, said the city has the highest murder rate per capita in Virginia, more than three times the state average .

Miyares said he had two federal prosecutors assigned to the area focus on violent crimes in Richmond and Petersburg.

Since April, Virginia State Police have committed additional resources to Petersburg, which city police chief Travis C. Christian credits with reducing violent crime. Christian said Public Safety Secretary Robert Mosier calls him at least once a week “to make sure everything is okay here in the city of Petersburg.”

The priorities listed by Transportation Secretary Shep Miller include several federal programs that have long been underway. These include a $58 million grant to Virginia and North Carolina to improve rail service between Richmond and Raleigh, which will benefit Petersburg, as well as federal funds to improve the local Amtrak station.

One Democratic lawmaker spoke at the event: State Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey, whose district includes Petersburg and is seen as a potential vote for Republicans seeking to pass increased limits on abortion next year. Democrats hold a 21-19 majority in the Senate, but Morrissey has signaled he may be open to restrictions after 20 weeks pregnant.

“I look forward, Governor, to working with you. You told me eight months ago that you were going to make Petersburg a central point of your administration. You did it – thank you very much,” Morrissey said to the cheers of the crowd.

Former Petersburg delegate Lashrecse D. Aird (D), who is challenging Morrissey for his Senate seat in 2023, later said she hoped the faith of local leaders would be rewarded, noting that Youngkin is widely seen as with ambitions for the national office.

“He spent his first year in office pitting whites against blacks because it was politically advantageous,” Aird said. “I just hope his new national ambitions aren’t the reason he’s now seeking…one of the blackest localities in the Commonwealth.”

After the ceremonies, a reporter asked Youngkin how he would assess whether the partnership had been successful. Each of the initiatives, he replied, has “measurable key results” that will show whether Petersburg’s situation has improved.

“We do things that are results and results oriented,” Youngkin said. Getting Cabinet secretaries to sign pledges “was not done for show, but for accountability”, he said, adding that he expects to receive regular progress reports.

Two cities share a name, water and a library. But one is in big trouble.

Youngkin said he intended for Petersburg to be a pilot program for a model that could be used in locations around the state. But he also clarified that part of the reason this one came first is that he felt a close relationship with Mayor Parham – who stood by Youngkin as he spoke to reporters.

“The mayor and I just got along,” Youngkin said.

When asked later if he was going Republican, Parham burst out laughing. “I have a special man there in Governor Youngkin,” he said. “I have his back, he has mine.”

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