RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — The Virginia Senate blocked the appointment Tuesday afternoon of Andrew Wheeler as secretary of natural resources, marking the first time in 16 years that lawmakers have turned away one of their governor's nominees.
“Wheeler is highly intelligent and affable,” said Senator Adam Ebbin, a Democrat who authored an amendment to remove Wheeler as Governor Glenn Youngkin’s environmental appointee from a larger list of nominees in a block vote. “If we confirm him, I fear he’ll use the office to do what he did at the federal level: dismantle protections for our air and natural environment.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s Senate floor vote, Republican Senator Richard H. Stuart touted what he called the “impeccable” credentials of the man who steered the U.S. Environment Protection Agency under former President Donald Trump for two years.
“There have been people I have supported that I didn’t think were really the best candidate but I respected the governor’s pick and I respect this governor who picked Wheeler,” he said
Wheeler was removed by a vote of 21-19 along party lines.
Youngkin, a Republican, expressed disappointment at the vote, the first time a gubernatorial nominee had been rejected by the state’s legislative body since Danny LeBlanc was blocked by a Republican-controlled House of Delegates from becoming secretary of the commonwealth. LeBlanc, a well known labor leader, had been appointed by former Governor Tim Kaine, who is now a U.S. senator.
"It's clear Mr. Wheeler is extraordinarily qualified to be secretary of natural and historic resources and admirably served for decades in the highest levels of government,” his spokesperson Macaulay Porter said in a statement. “He was looking forward to Mr. Wheeler accomplished great things on behalf of Virginians.”
Youngkin said that, under the law, Wheeler will still hold the office of secretary of natural and historic resources role until the legislative session ends in mid-March.
Despite killing his nominations, some Democrats spoke highly of the nominee. From the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, which interviewed Wheeler in late January, Senator Chap Petersen called him “one of the smartest guys in the room” but unfit for the job during Tuesday's floor session.
“The role of the secretary of natural resources is not thinking of ways to get around environmental rules, it's about protecting land and waters,” he said of Wheeler’s history of defunding Chesapeake Bay clean up efforts and rolling back clean air regulations.
“The governor is entitled to a presumption on his cabinet secretaries, but it's just a presumption,” he added.
Among the deal-breaking concerns for Ebbin was a letter signed by 150 former EPA employees from both political parties that criticized the one-time agency head as putting polluters first.
“We cannot afford to make the same mistake the U.S. Senate made," Petersen said.
Environmental activists praised the Senate's decision, with Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, arguing Wheeler's track record made him unfit.
“With evidence now that he lacks the votes to push this nominee forward, we hope Youngkin will see reason and appoint a Natural Resources Secretary who will prioritize protecting the lands, air and water of the Commonwealth,” he added.
Youngkin's office did not offer any names for a new appointee, but he'll need someone in the post if he plans to fulfill his campaign promises to roll back environmental regulations passed by Democrats in recent years.