The Bulletin

Wheeler to remain in Youngkin administration as senior adviser

By: - March 14, 2022 3:55 pm

Virginia just launched its new Office of the Children’s Ombudsman, aimed at overseeing the state’s child welfare system. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, whose appointment as Virginia’s top environmental official was blocked by Senate Democrats, will serve as a senior adviser to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, according to Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter. 

Porter also said that Deputy Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Travis Voyles will serve as acting secretary of natural and historic resources. Youngkin announced his appointment as deputy secretary Feb. 18. 

According to Voyles’ LinkedIn profile, the acting secretary until February served as counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Prior to that, he worked for the EPA. 

The appointment of Wheeler, a polarizing figure in both Washington and Richmond, as Virginia’s secretary of natural and historic resources proved one of the most controversial issues of the General Assembly’s 2022 session. 

Former 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. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Getty Images)

Although it has long been tradition in the General Assembly to show deference to the governor in confirming cabinet appointments, Democrats in the Senate formed a “brick wall” to block Wheeler, citing among other concerns his record of rolling back environmental rules aimed at protecting air and water quality. 

Wheeler continued to serve as acting secretary during the session, but state law prohibits anyone whose appointment has been rejected by the General Assembly from continuing in office after the rejection. “Nor,” the law continues, “shall such person be eligible for reappointment during the recess of the General Assembly to fill the vacancy caused by the refusal to confirm.”

Because Wheeler was blocked not by an outright rejection but by repeated Democratic votes to strip his name from a resolution confirming Youngkin’s other picks, his appointment remained possible though unlikely until the legislature adjourned Saturday. 

In the meantime, the fight over Wheeler quickly spilled over into a broader partisan conflict that has tied up numerous other appointments. 

In response, House Republicans blocked 11 appointments made by former Gov. Ralph Northam to several state environmental, health and education boards. 

“They want to be the brick wall, let ‘em be a brick wall,” House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, said at the time. “But they don’t run the place.” 

Senate Democrats retaliated last week by blocking four Youngkin appointees to the Virginia Parole Board and one to the Safety and Health Codes Board, with Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, saying that “the House needs to be taught a lesson.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]