By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
RICHMOND, March 7 -- Republicans in Virginia's House of Delegates dealt Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) the harshest blow of his young administration Tuesday, rejecting the governor's nomination of a former top labor leader to be part of his Cabinet.
In doing so, Republicans crossed a line that has never been crossed in Virginia and ratcheted up partisan tensions with Kaine, even as the General Assembly's negotiations over funding for transportation improvements teetered on the edge of a stalemate.
By a vote of 55 to 42, Republicans rejected Kaine's choice of former AFL-CIO state director Daniel G. LeBlanc to be secretary of the commonwealth. The GOP objected largely to LeBlanc's long-standing opposition to "right to work" labor laws.
Until Tuesday, lawmakers in Virginia had not blocked a governor's choice for a Cabinet secretary since the system was put in place in the 1970s by Kaine's father-in-law, then-Gov. A. Linwood Holton (R).
The largely party-line vote marked the culmination of two weeks of bitter political sparring in Richmond, where a brief bipartisan spirit of cooperation after Kaine's Jan. 14 inauguration has given way to barely civil conversations between the two parties.
A visibly angry Kaine vowed to keep LeBlanc, a longtime friend, as a powerful but informal adviser during the remainder of his four-year term. And he warned Republican leaders that their decision to reject LeBlanc will have lasting consequences in their relationship.
"They have taken a huge leap, way past any degree of partisanship that's ever been shown in this commonwealth, and they have decided that Washington-style, McCarthy-style politics is what they want to practice here in the House of Delegates," Kaine said after a House committee signaled the Republicans' intentions by voting 13 to 8 against the nomination Tuesday morning. "And they are going to regret it."
Kaine refused to elaborate, and LeBlanc declined to comment.
Republican leaders in the House ignored Kaine's threats of retaliation when it came time for the floor vote. They said LeBlanc's position against the state's right-to-work laws was a key factor in their vote to reject the nomination to the state's top patronage job. The secretary of the commonwealth oversees the governor's appointments of more than 4,000 people to hundreds of boards and commissions.
Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax) said LeBlanc's appointment would lead to a "unionization of the state workforce. He would possess the ability to fill these positions entirely with people who share his views about 'right to work.' "
Republicans said those laws, which bar companies from requiring union membership as a condition of employment, are a basic tenet of the state's conservative philosophy. Democrats hailed unions as the protectors of working class people, even as they said the right-to-work laws are in no jeopardy.
Union workers "are citizens of this commonwealth," said Del. Clarence E. "Bud" Phillips (D-Dickenson), whose grandfather organized coal miners in southwestern Virginia. "Just because they belong to unions doesn't mean they are not Americans. Just because they are union workers doesn't mean they are not Virginians."
All of those voting against LeBlanc were Republicans. Two independents joined 40 Democrats to support the nomination. LeBlanc's nomination had been approved unanimously in the Senate, which is also controlled by Republicans.
The disagreements Tuesday even extended to the annual pickup basketball game between Republican lawmakers and the governor's staff. Kaine and his staff did not show after saying a misunderstanding led them to believe they were disinvited. "Everyone's made other plans," said Kevin Hall, Kaine's spokesman.
Last week, House Republicans had pounced on comments made at a town hall meeting by Kaine's chief of staff, William H. Leighty, suggesting that Kaine would retaliate against legislation backed by GOP lawmakers who did not support higher taxes for transportation. Leighty and Kaine apologized, and the House GOP confirmed Leighty.
On Monday, House Republicans again lashed out at Kaine over a report that Kaine was preparing an advertising blitz on behalf of transportation funding aimed at 26 House Republicans. Democrats accused the House GOP of hypocrisy.
On Tuesday, both parties played out what probably were the final throes of a political drama that began with Kaine's nomination of LeBlanc. Kaine administration officials held out a glimmer of hope that a legislative maneuver might yet revive the nomination. But the tactic, forcing the House GOP to reject all of the state's agency chiefs, could spark another confrontation between the two legislative chambers and the governor.
LeBlanc's supporters decried the vote, saying the Republicans were using the nomination to score broader political points against Kaine. "What a joke. What a joke," said Michael Mohler, the president of the state firefighters' union and a longtime friend of LeBlanc's. "It's one of the most cowardly exercises I've ever witnessed."
House Republicans said they do not believe their rejection of LeBlanc will haunt them politically, because Democrats usually receive support and financial backing from labor unions anyway.
But Democratic leaders said they look forward to using the issue in next year's legislative elections. Asked by a reporter whether LeBlanc is "your battle cry for raising a lot of union money," Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, answered: "Does that have to be asked?"