After nearly year-long logjam, GOP ‘rams through’ State Corporation Commission pick with no Democratic support

January 16, 2019 11:29 am

State Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

More than a year after Judge James Dimitri said he was stepping down from the State Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, insurance, banking and other business interests, Republicans in the General Assembly muscled through a surprise pick to fill the last remaining year of his term in a single day with zero Democratic support.

The new judge is Judge Patricia West, a former chief deputy attorney general under Ken Cuccinelli, a former secretary of public safety under Gov. George Allen and a judge on the Virginia Beach Circuit Court. She is an associate dean of career and alumni services and a professor of law and government at Regent University, a Christian university in Virginia Beach.

“I would like to continue my service to the commonwealth and this is an area where I can really serve the people of the commonwealth and the companies that decide to do business here,” she told the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Wednesday morning in a meeting that took some lawmakers and lobbyists by surprise.

Her selection broke a lengthy impasse between House and Senate Republicans, who control both chambers, that had failed to produce a pick for the seat over the past year.

“The logjam’s been finally broken,” said Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, who chairs the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. West was confirmed as qualified by the Senate committee during a hastily organized joint meeting with the House Commerce and Labor Committee meeting Wednesday morning. The House committee was unable to vote to certify West because of a lack of a quorum, said Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, the chairman, but did so later in the day.

“Procedurally, we’re going to go into a joint continuing resolution to elect judges today. When the House certifies, after that, then she’ll be on the ballot today and she’ll be elected by, I hope, close of business today and we’ll put this to bed,” Wagner said.

That procedure had Democrats seething, particularly since House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, had told the House on Tuesday that Republicans would not be ready to bring a State Corporation Commission pick to the floor on Wednesday.

“It’s shocking and disturbing at best. Where is the transparency?” said Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the House minority leader. “Sunlight did not shine on the Capitol today.”

The SCC’s commissioners are elected by the General Assembly for six-year terms, staggered in increments of two years. The commission has a staff of nearly 600.

West remarks to the committee were likely music to the ears of some senior lawmakers of both parties, who have fumed in the past when the commission — an independent agency created under the 1902 state Constitution primarily to rein in the railroad companies that dominated the legislature— exercised that independent judgment, especially on utility matters.

“The SCC is basically controlled by statue, so whatever the General Assembly decides the State Corporation Commission is supposed to do, that’s what they do,” she said.

There was some grumbling in the hallways outside of the committee room about the surprise nature of the meeting.

And some environmental groups were wary of West, noting that she had been involved  in Cuccinelli’s legal crusade against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that greenhouse gases contribute to global warming.

“I think it’s evident they want to ram this through,” said Mike Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. “I don’t know Judge West, but our initial reaction is she does not represent the views of a majority of Virginians and have some deep concerns about her nomination to fill this very important post.”

Progressive groups and the Virginia Democratic Party blasted West’s nomination  and called attention to her social media postings.

“Judge West’s social media accounts regularly amplify anti-LGBT and xenophobic messages and voices,” said the Charlottesville group Clean Virginia, which is fighting the influence of Dominion Energy in state government. “Those views should have no place in our legal system.”

Virginia Democrats called her a “conspiracy theorist.”

“Most troubling of all for the citizens of Virginia, Patricia West has a long history of endorsing and promoting far-right, sexist, Islamophobic conspiracy theories,” the party said in a statement.

Filler-Corn said the neither the public nor lawmakers had time to vet a nominee for an important regulatory position.

She was asked if it would come up again after this year’s House and Senate elections.

“Will it come up again? I think that’s likely,” she said.

This article has been updated to add additional reaction to the election of Judge West.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]