Republican lawmakers voted today to reject an environmentalist named to the state Water Control Board by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), stirring Democratic complaints that the GOP majority had blocked a qualified female from public office for the second time in five days.
Charlottesville lawyer Katherine E. Slaughter, 63, who even opponents said was a highly qualified appointee, said she would fight a Republican request that she withdraw her name from the legislature's confirmation process.
"I think I'd be able to have an impact," Slaughter said after a party-line vote against her in a House-Senate panel reviewing gubernatorial appointees. "I could ask the kinds of questions to help the agency articulate its positions, not just be a rubber stamp."
However, Republican lawmakers, including two who led the opposition to Newport News Circuit Court Judge Verbena M. Askew last week, said Slaughter had an obvious conflict of interest on the water board, having been a longtime senior counsel to a group that joined the legal fight against a huge reservoir proposed for southeastern Virginia.
The final voting on Slaughter in the Privileges and Elections committees of the House and Senate is scheduled for this week, perhaps as early as Tuesday. GOP leaders said it was unlikely that the committees would reverse the recommendation of the panels that met today.
"This has nothing to do with Kay's qualifications or her position of advocating on behalf of environmental issues," said Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City). "There is an appearance of a conflict. . . . If you have a conflict, it's permanent and pervasive."
Added Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach): "It just has the appearance of a terrible conflict. It's an unfortunate situation, because nobody disputes the fact that Kay brings a lot to the table."
Ellen Qualls, Warner's press secretary, said the governor was standing by Slaughter, whose appointment was important to the statewide environmental community that helped him in the 2001 governor's race. Slaughter said she planned to give opponents of her nomination documents showing the steps she took to separate herself from the Southern Environmental Law Center, where she has been a senior lawyer since 1986.
"The governor believes Kay Slaughter is eminently qualified," Qualls said.
Slaughter's July appointment -- she has already attended three water board meetings -- was the first Warner selection sidetracked for closer scrutiny by lawmakers, who are expected to act on an estimated 1,400 executive nominations.
The power to reject appointees is one jealously guarded by the legislative branch, even when the governor is a member of the assembly's party in power. Last year, Republicans canceled a slew of last-minute appointments made by Warner's predecessor, James S. Gilmore III (R). Their record in the Askew episode has opened a strict new era of review -- one that may be just as hard-nosed and frankly partisan as when Democrats ruled Richmond.
In contrast to a gubernatorial appointment, Askew sought reelection by the assembly under Virginia's system of lawmakers electing the judiciary. On Wednesday, Askew was defeated on largely party-line votes.
In refusing to appoint her to a second eight-year term, GOP lawmakers cited several concerns, including a $64,000 settlement the City of Hampton paid after a workplace sexual harassment complaint was filed against Askew. Democratic legislators complained that Republican colleagues were ignoring attributes that made Askew the first African American woman to achieve Circuit Court status, in 1985.
Slaughter said she made a painstaking effort before her water board appointment last summer to sever her relationship with the Southern Environmental Law Center as it pertained to the ongoing regulatory battle over a 1,500-acre reservoir that the fast-growing Peninsula region wants built in rural King William County.
Slaughter said she planned all along to recuse herself from reservoir matters and maintain a "fire wall" between her law center advocacy and her board duties. The governor appoints the seven members of the board, a quasi-judicial agency that administers water statutes -- important oversight in severe droughts such as last year's.
Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), who supported Slaughter in the voting today, criticized the Republican votes as "a political decision on their parts."
"She built the fire wall she had to. This is part of a trend I find very disturbing," Howell said.