Senate Democrats boot Youngkin health commissioner, two other appointees

Gubernatorial picks for Parole Board, Board of Education also blocked

By: - February 7, 2023 8:51 pm

Virginia Health Commissioner Colin Greene, center, was one of three Republican appointees Senate Democrats refused to confirm Tuesday. (Kate Master/Virginia Mercury)

Democrats in the Virginia Senate wielded their majority power Tuesday to block confirmation of three of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s appointees, including the state’s health commissioner.

In occasionally bitter exchanges that left a high-ranking Republican saying he was “embarrassed” for the institution, the Senate publicly discussed the perceived qualifications and shortcomings of several people the Republican governor picked for state jobs.

“We typically try to do this in a respectful way so we don’t have to talk about these people on the floor,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. “But if you want to talk about ’em, we’ll talk about ’em.”

On a party-line vote, the Senate blocked the appointment of Health Commissioner Colin Greene, Virginia’s top public health official, over comments he made downplaying the significance of racism as a driver of health disparities. Republican lawmakers said Greene’s comments were not a reflection of his lengthy career in public service, but Democrats said the views he expressed were damaging the Virginia Department of Health’s ability to function.

“Whether he’s inarticulate or not is not the point,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. “The point is his leadership is having a chilling effect on the work that the Legislative Black Caucus has done to address racism as a public health crisis.”

Democrats also blocked Youngkin Board of Education appointee Suparna Dutta, an Indian immigrant who has criticized progressive education policies that she believes overemphasize the importance of race. Dutta gained prominence as a critic of equity-based admissions policies at Northern Virginia’s elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which has been accused of discriminating against Asian American applicants in its efforts to boost enrollment of Black students and other underrepresented minority groups.

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, accused Dutta of expressing the belief that “racism was not a factor in American history.” 

“We know that that is not correct American history, of course,” Hashmi said.

Hashmi did not quote specific comments Dutta had made, and Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, said he didn’t feel that was an accurate characterization of Dutta’s views on history. Newman also stressed Dutta’s background as an information technology professional and immigrant who came to America “with nothing in her pocket.”

“It is correct that she has also been an advocate for ensuring that Asian American and other students are treated fairly,” Newman said.

The third rejected Youngkin nominee was Virginia Parole Board member Steven Buck, whom Democrats said has voted to grant parole in a vanishingly small number of the cases the new board has heard. In response, Republicans argued Democrats did little to hold their own party’s Parole Board members accountable for numerous procedural and legal missteps that spilled into public view in 2020.

In a statement issued Tuesday night, Youngkin defended the qualifications of all three appointees the Senate blocked and called the move “an appalling show of partisanship.”

Democrats are repeating loudly their clear beliefs: parents don’t matter, criminals first victims last, and petty politics above Virginia’s best interests,” Youngkin said. “It’s shameful. Virginians deserve so much better.”

A Democratic attempt to block the confirmation of University of Virginia Board of Visitors member Bert Ellis, a conservative businessman, failed after a 20-20 tie vote. Students and faculty at the university had called for Ellis to be blocked from the governance job over a 2020 incident in which Ellis brought a blade to the school in the hopes of removing a “F— UVA” sign a student had put up in a door to one of the school’s prestigious Lawn residences.

In a less serious attempt to block a Youngkin nominee, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, attempted to have the body reject Elections Commissioner Susan Beals, whom Chase accused of not taking “election irregularities” seriously enough. Democratic senators stood up for Beals, who once worked as an aide to Chase, calling Beals “responsive,” “competent” and “a straight shooter.”

Chase also spoke against Greene, saying she was disappointed that, as health commissioner, he had not backed her claims that the deworming medicine ivermectin could be an effective defense against COVID-19.

As the Senate adjourned for the night following the appointment battle, Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, pleaded with the body to not let the fight spill over into confirmations of state judges.

“I think there is complicity on both sides,” Norment said. “I am embarrassed with what has happened.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if Republicans would use their own power to retaliate. After a similar appointment fight last year, Youngkin vetoed all bills sponsored by a Democratic senator who led the charge to block a handful of other gubernatorial nominees.


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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.