RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A simmering fight over Virginia Democrats’ rejection of one of GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Cabinet picks escalated Friday after Republicans initially appeared ready to leave in limbo hundreds of gubernatorial appointees made by the previous Democratic administration.
Democratic legislative leaders said they learned that the GOP-controlled House was not planning to act on more than 1,000 appointments to various state boards made by Gov. Ralph Northam that would have expired Friday. The two chambers are currently at odds over the Democrat-led Senate’s refusal to confirm former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler as secretary of natural and historic resources.
Democrats began warning that the situation would hinder the government’s work, but House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore said late Friday afternoon that a resolution had been reached, and most of the appointments would be confirmed. “We could have just let them all die today but out of good faith, we’re going to act today and move forward,” he said.
Kilgore said House Republicans planned to remove only about 15 to 20 of Northam’s appointees to panels including the state air and water boards and board of education. “They started it by taking Wheeler off and you know, they wanted to play the game, so we’re gonna play the game,” Kilgore said.
Among the blocked education board appointees was Anthony Swann, a Black fifth-grade Franklin County educator who had been named the 2021 Virginia Teacher of the Year. A House GOP spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment for why Swann’s appointment was blocked.
Wheeler led the EPA under the Trump administration. His selection by Youngkin has prompted a backlash from Democrats, environmental groups and a number of former EPA employees, who criticized his leadership as overly deferential to corporate polluters. Kilgore and Democratic Sen. Adam Ebbin told the AP no agreement had been made for the Senate to take another vote on Wheeler. “But everything’s in play,” Kilgore said.
The House voted on the amended resolutions containing the appointments late Friday. Among the various entities originally thought to be impacted were: the Board of Election, Board of Education, Board of Medicine, Virginia Lottery Board, the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority Board of Directors. Many of the appointees had already been serving in the roles, pending confirmation.
The level of political drama surrounding the Wheeler nomination fight is unusual. The Cabinet secretary approval process is usually fairly perfunctory, with the approval of the governor’s choices seen as a courtesy, absent major controversies. “The old Virginia way of centrist accommodation between the two parties is getting harder to achieve with the intensely partisan caucuses of Democrats and Republicans in Richmond today,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.
The last time an appointee was defeated was 2006, when the General Assembly rejected the former president of the state AFL-CIO for a post in then-Gov. Tim Kaine’s administration. Kaine went on to appoint Daniel LeBlanc to serve as a senior work force adviser, a role that didn’t require legislative approval. Youngkin could make a similar move with Wheeler.