Virginia Lawmakers Again Fail To Fill Key Regulatory Job

Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Del Todd Gilbert, Shenandoah, left, gavels to order the special session of the Virginia General Assembly Wednesday Sept. 7, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Del Todd Gilbert, Shenandoah, left, gavels to order the special session of the Virginia General Assembly Wednesday Sept. 7, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
View All (5)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers elected a handful of local judges Wednesday but failed yet again to fill a vacancy on the powerful State Corporation Commission, which regulates a wide range of business interests.

The lack of action during the politically divided General Assembly's one-day special session in Richmond means the long-running impasse will continue, possibly for months.

“I’m disappointed. I mean, we pushed this from June to give ourselves enough time to do some vetting and and come up with with a mutually agreed-upon candidate,” said Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell, who was involved in negotiations with the GOP-controlled House and said discussions fell apart at the last minute.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw declined to answer questions about the appointment or related negotiations but blamed Republicans in a news release.

“They have their preferences, and we have ours,” GOP House Speaker Todd Gilbert told reporters.

The spot on the three-member commission is vacant because House Republicans let the appointment of commissioner Angela Navarro expire earlier this year amid a broader fight over political appointees of Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Youngkin's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, appointed Navarro, a former environmental attorney and member of his administration, to the job.

The process for filling the role has proceeded with minimal transparency.

Lawmakers have not made public the full list of candidates under consideration, and no preliminary interviews have been conducted publicly.

The SCC's purview includes the regulation of utilities, insurance, state-chartered financial institutions, railroad safety and other matters. Its two commissioners are currently considering Dominion Energy's massive offshore wind farm, which the company says would be the country's largest.

Both chambers approved four candidates for local judgeships, and Gilbert set a special election for Jan. 10 to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Mark Keam, a Democratic delegate from a solidly blue northern Virginia district who recently took a job with the Biden administration.

Lawmakers also confirmed appointments to various state boards and reshuffled some committee assignments.

Several Democrats gave floor speeches criticizing Youngkin's decision to campaign Wednesday in Maine with Republican Paul LePage, a former governor known for his offensive rhetoric and combative leadership who is seeking a third nonconsecutive term.

LePage has a long history of making controversial remarks, and made national news in 2016 in part for suggesting out-of-state drug dealers were impregnating “young white” girls and saying “the enemy” in the fight against drugs was “people of color or people of Hispanic origin.”

House Minority Leader Don Scott said Youngkin was “playing footsies” with an “unabashed racist.”

“To be going to Maine, to stand with a person like that today, while we’re here working — shameful,” he said.

Republicans defended the governor. Gilbert suggested Democrats would find anything to complain about. And Sen. David Suetterlein responded by taking a shot at Northam.

“I wish that our previous governor had been invited to speak in more states. Unfortunately, he instead appeared on ‘Saturday Night Live,'” Suetterlein said, in a reference to an episode that skewered Northam amid the 2019 scandal over a racist photo that appeared in his medical school yearbook.

Lawmakers also failed to agree Wednesday on how to adjourn, taking different technical votes on the matter. The split creates some uncertainty about implications for the governor, who has different powers to make appointments and call special elections based on whether the part-time General Assembly is in session.

The House voted to adjourn with finality, while the Senate voted to adjourn but leave open the possibility of returning at the call of a committee chair.

The situation is not unprecedented, but has never been tested by the courts, Surovell said.

Asked about the possibility of a legal fight, Gilbert said it might depend on whether the governor will seek to take any interim actions before the regular 2023 session. As for the SCC spot, Gilbert said he would ask the governor not to try to step in, saying he expects lawmakers will be able to arrive at a consensus eventually.