The Bulletin

Virginia Democrats vote to block controversial Youngkin cabinet pick

By: - February 1, 2022 4:18 pm

Then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies at a hearing titled Oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on May 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will face questions as his agency faces legal challenges and criticism for easing enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic and rolling back vehicle emissions rules. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Getty Images)

Democrats on a Virginia Senate committee voted Tuesday to strip former Trump EPA chief Andrew Wheeler from a list of approved hires for Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s cabinet, following through on promises to oppose a onetime coal lobbyist tapped to become Virginia’s top environmental official.

In a 9-6 vote, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee removed Wheeler’s name from a resolution confirming Youngkin’s appointments before voting to send it on to the Senate floor. But that vote won’t be the final step in the rare confirmation battle.

Republicans can try to add Wheeler back later in the process, but it remains unclear if he will have the necessary Democratic support to win confirmation as Youngkin’s secretary of natural and historic resources. Democrats hold a 21-19 majority in the Senate, with Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, a Republican, in position to break any ties from Democratic defections.

Even if Wheeler isn’t confirmed, the Youngkin administration could move him into a different role that doesn’t require General Assembly approval.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, said the legislature had heard testimony suggesting Wheeler had “worked against the environmental interests of this country” while at the EPA.

“We think that members of the governor’s cabinet ought to be people who unite us as Virginians,” Deeds said. “And certainly the secretary of natural and historic resources ought to be one we have confidence in in terms of working for the preservation and conservation of our natural and historic resources. On this side of the aisle, we just don’t have that level of confidence with this nominee.”

Senators question Wheeler on carbon reduction programs, Chesapeake Bay 

Republicans on the committee voiced mild objections but didn’t put up much of a fight in the roughly five minutes the committee spent on the topic.

“We can sit and go tit for tat but we already know what the outcome is,” said Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania.

In a statement after the vote, Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter called Wheeler a “highly qualified individual” well-versed in the “critically important” issues he’d be asked to take on.

“The governor is disappointed that the committee put partisan politics over the selection of an experienced public servant who would prioritize clenaing up the Chesapeake Bay and James River,” Porter said.

Youngkin’s selection of Wheeler has drawn strong opposition from Democrats and environmentalists, who have argued his record of unwinding federal efforts to address climate change makes him unfit for an environmental post in Virginia. Wheeler has defended himself before legislative committees, telling state lawmakers his record was unfairly distorted by the press.

Dominion Energy offices in Richmond, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Before the vote on Wheeler, some of the same Democrats on the committee blocked bipartisan campaign finance bills seeking to rein in the political influence of Dominion Energy and other state-regulated utilities. For years, that proposal has been a priority for environmentalists and good-government groups but has failed to clear key committee hurdles. On Tuesday, it failed 11-4, with five Democrats joining six Republicans to defeat it.

Similar legislation remains alive in the House of Delegates, where a years long push by progressives to cleanse utility influence from the General Assembly and Republican anger over Dominion’s bankrolling of a PAC that did anti-Youngkin advertising in rural Virginia united in an attempt to push a bill through this year.

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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.