Education secretary requested university mascots appear in Youngkin PAC video
University spokespeople said they didn’t see the ad as political.
Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera asked Virginia’s state universities to use their mascots in a video funded by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s political action committee, according to two university spokespeople.
In emails obtained by VPM News, officials did not say Youngkin’s PAC, The Spirit of Virginia, would pay for the "ad.” The public universities described the video as meant to promote Virginia athletics and not political in nature.
The lighthearted ad, made in the style of 2000s ESPN commercials, features university mascots attempting to convince Youngkin to include their teams in his March Madness bracket picks.
Five mascots cheer on Youngkin as he gets coffee.
James Madison University’s Duke Dog walks dogs into the executive mansion with a pooper scooper. And Norfolk State’s Spiro the Spartan massages Youngkin’s shoulders as he works. The University of Virginia’s Cavman and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rodney the Ram were also in the video, along with Virginia Tech’s HokieBird.
The video is arguably not a campaign ad, since Youngkin has not filed to run for another office. But it was funded by the Spirit of Virginia, according to a disclaimer at the end of the video.
It was published on the governor’s campaign-related social media feeds and not on the governor’s official feeds. The video appeared at the same time as a major public-relations push around Youngkin’s appearance at a CNN town hall on education, which provided an opportunity for national exposure amid speculation that he could challenge former President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination for president in 2024.
At a panel discussion Thursday hosted by the Campaign Legal Center, Saurav Ghosh, the organization’s director of federal campaign finance reform, said while he didn’t know the specifics of the Youngkin video, campaign finance advocates often deal with state-level politicians abusing their leadership PACs to promote their own brand ahead of a run for higher office.
“There are rules prohibiting candidates using a state PAC in this way," said Shanna Ports, a campaign finance lawyer with the organization. "So, that's one way that law might be broken if we're talking about promotional ads."
State officials' involvement in soliciting public university’s intellectual property also raises ethics questions, but appears to fall into a gray area of campaign finance. Is it appropriate for state officials to be involved in the production of PAC-funded videos, even if they are not overtly political? Does the use of the mascot constitute a “gift”? Is it a campaign expenditure despite, Youngkin not having declared for another political office?
A Youngkin spokesperson didn’t address some of the questions raised by the ad.
“This fun promotional video highlights Virginia university basketball programs, their mascots, and our student-athletes. The satirical celebration of Virginia teams in March madness did not use any taxpayer funds,” said Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter in an emailed response. “We are happy that this video created buzz, including from [Maryland] Governor Wes Moore, and we are thankful to those who participated to celebrate Virginia teams."
It’s not the first time the Republican administration has drawn ethical questions over a video. Last year, the Virginia Tourism Corporation hired Youngkin’s preferred campaign advertising firm, POOLHOUSE, to produce an ad starring the governor that welcomed visitors to the state. The ad now plays at airports and rest stops across the state.
Democrats argued the video amounted to a state-funded political ad. But a December report from the Office of State Inspector General found VTC didn’t violate state procurement laws.
A UVA spokesperson said the correspondence about the recent video was seen as being between two state officials. Brian Coy said UVA didn’t see this as a political or a campaign ad.
“It is not uncommon for images or video of mascots [to] be used in campaigns promoting the Commonwealth. Virginia Tech does have a policy that prohibits the university from endorsing political candidates or organizations,” said Mark Owczarski, a Virginia Tech spokesperson, in an email.
VCU, UVA and Virginia Tech spokespeople all said their mascots had appeared in other videos to promote Virginia or for state agencies. A video published during the COVID-19 pandemic featured 45 mascots.
Owczarski, Tech’s spokesperson, said that education secretary Guidera made the request at a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia meeting in late February.
On Feb. 27, Guidera attended a meeting of SCHEV’s General Professional Advisory Committee, which is made up of university presidents. At the meeting, Guidera asked if university mascots could be used in a promotional video “highlighting the successful seasons” of Virginia’s basketball teams, according to Owczarski.
The day after the meeting, Madi Biedermann, a communications and policy advisor with the Office of the Secretary of Education, followed up by emailing university representatives to coordinate bringing mascots to Capitol Square for the three-hour video shoot. The email did not mention the Spirit of Virginia’s involvement with the ad.
Eventually, all five teams that made it to NCAA tournaments had their mascots featured in the ad.
Nancy Morgan from Big Money Out VA, a campaign finance reform group, said the administration should have been clear about the PAC’s involvement.
“If it is a campaign and promotional ad, [the universities] should have been informed, so that they could recognize that services that they provided would be considered in-kind contribution to the Spirit of Virginia,” said Morgan.
Morgan added that she believes the Spirit of Virginia’s involvement makes it a political act by definition.
Public records requests for correspondence between government officials and universities indicate that there wasn’t a consistent policy for who paid for the schools’ involvement in the video. Virginia Tech’s office of government relations offered to reimburse a student for mileage to travel to Richmond to pose as the mascot, but Owczarski said Virginia Tech was able to accommodate the request “at no cost to the university.”
VCU did not answer a follow up email asking how — or if — reimbursement for Rodney’s participation was arranged. JMU and Norfolk State did not reply to requests for comment by publication.
The ad could raise issues for Youngkin at a later date. In some situations, previous donations — including in-kind donations — need to be disclosed when candidacy is officially announced, said Ports, of the Campaign Legal Center, at the Thursday panel discussion. Ports added that it’s a very “facts-specific issue,” though.
Virginia Tech’s women’s team is the No. 1 seed in its bracket and is scheduled to play Tennessee in the Sweet 16 on March 25.
University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University’s teams were eliminated from the men’s tournament in the first round. James Madison University and Norfolk State were also eliminated from the women’s tournament.