Democratic state senators in Virginia are signaling that they have the votes to block Andrew Wheeler, Donald Trump’s controversial second head of the Environmental Protection Agency and a former coal lobbyist, from becoming the state’s top environmental official.
Newly sworn-in Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) announced earlier this month that he had picked Wheeler for secretary of natural resources, a choice that enraged Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups.
Democrats hold a slim 21-19 majority in the Virginia Senate, meaning a party-line vote would sink Wheeler’s nomination. If a single Democrat supports Wheeler, however, Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, a Republican, would cast the tiebreaking vote.
State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D) is chair of the committee that considers gubernatorial nominees and submits resolutions confirming their appointment. In a statement late last week, he noted that he expects Wheeler’s nomination to be rejected.
“I think the Democratic caucus is pretty united,” Deeds told HuffPost on Monday.
Along with fielding phone calls from concerned constituents, Deeds said he and his colleagues read with interest a detailed letter from more than 150 former EPA employees sent earlier this month. In it, the group detailed much of Wheeler’s record at the agency and accused him of having “pursued an extremist approach, methodically weakening EPA’s ability to protect public health and the environment, instead favoring polluters.”
“They provided a lot of information that I don’t know how you can rebut,” Deeds said. “Now, Wheeler tells me he can rebut it, that it’s not true. I assume he’s talking to the various Democratic members, that’s what I suggested to do. Everybody is an independent thinker.”
Deeds and Wheeler spoke by phone shortly after his nomination and the two later met in Deeds’ office, the state senator said. On both occasions, Deeds told the former Trump official that he expected Democrats to vote down his nomination, he said.
“I believe in working with the governor and working with the House where we can,” Deeds said. “Where we can’t, we’re going to stand firm on our ground. We’re not planning on going back on anything, and this nomination would be a step back.”
Several other Democratic state senators, including some of the caucus’ more moderate members, have voiced concern about Wheeler or outright opposition to him. And like Deeds, some have expressed confidence that they will succeed in defeating the nomination.
“We do,” state Sen. Joe Morrissey (D) told The Hill when asked if his party had enough votes to block Wheeler.
In Virginia, governors’ cabinet picks typically sail through confirmation. The last time the Virginia General Assembly blocked a nomination was in 2006, when Republicans rejected Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine’s nomination of Daniel LeBlanc to serve as secretary of the commonwealth, as The New York Times reported.
Wheeler ― fresh off his tenure in the Trump administration, where he played a key role in rolling back various climate and environmental rules ― has proven to be a particularly contentious choice for a powerful state environmental position. As HuffPost first reported last week, numerous current EPA staffers have come out forcefully against their old boss.
Marie Owens Powell, president of the AFGE Council 238, a union that represents more than 7,500 EPA employees nationwide, wrote that Wheeler “destroyed or weakened dozens of environmental safeguards at EPA, with the sole intention of bolstering polluting industries’ profit margins.”
“We believe he will do so again if you confirm his nomination,” Owens Powell wrote to Virginia state senators.
Youngkin’s office did not respond to a request for comment Monday. Last week, the governor’s office referred HuffPost to a previous interview Youngkin did with WTVR-TV in Richmond, in which he called Wheeler “the most qualified person for this job.”