Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner criticized Virginia Republicans today over their legislative agenda and the ouster of a Circuit Court judge, just hours before a GOP-led committee voted along party lines to reject Warner's environmentalist appointee to the state water board.
Warner issued a pointed critique of the Republican agenda during the first half of the General Assembly session, saying on his monthly WTOP radio show that GOP lawmakers were pursuing partisan goals at the expense of the state's response to the budget crisis and his proposals to restructure the state bureaucracy.
Warner, who has carefully courted Republicans since assuming office a year ago, also denounced for the first time the Republican review of Newport News Circuit Court Judge Verbena M. Askew, saying it was not conducted in "an unbiased and impartial" manner.
"My concern is . . . in the first 10 days, at least, all the House spent their time talking about was DMV," Warner said, referring to nonstop complaints about his cuts at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
"Then, you've got every antiabortion bill that has been even conceived or thought of for the last 10 years, all kind of marching its way through the legislature -- an important issue, but one that takes a disproportionate amount of time," Warner said.
Those election year issues, coupled with Askew's ouster, "have in many ways, I think, not allowed the legislature -- and we're halfway through -- to take the time to focus on the budget and the reform package."
Some senior Republicans scoffed at Warner's remarks, saying the governor -- who is in his first elective office -- was not wise to the ways of the legislature.
"I know it's hard -- he hasn't been in government -- but the governor doesn't understand that it's not yet appropriate to bring the budget to the floor of the House," said Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). "But if the governor wants floor speeches on the budget and his one-time fixes, we can accommodate him."
Several events had strained political and personal relationships around the state Capitol, leading Democrats and Republicans alike to worry whether things will deteriorate further before the assembly adjourns Feb. 22.
Similarly, tensions between Warner and assembly Republicans had been building for weeks, but the mutual hostility had not flared as openly as it did today.
Relations between the two branches sank again seven hours after Warner's radio show, when the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee followed through on a Republican promise to block the confirmation of Katherine E. Slaughter, a longtime Democratic activist and well-regarded environmental lawyer whom Warner named to the State Water Control Board last summer.
GOP lawmakers said Slaughter should be disqualified because her private job as attorney on water issues for the Southern Environmental Law Center conflicted with her public duties on the water board, a quasi-judicial agency that administers Virginia's water-use statutes.
Slaughter said she had taken all the necessary steps to avoid a conflict and refused the lawmakers' request that she withdraw her name from consideration. Slaughter did say she was willing to seek a binding decision from the Virginia State Bar after her confirmation and would resign from the board if the lawyers group found her to have a conflict.
The committee's 9-to-4, party-line vote prompted a sharp rebuke from Slaughter and a spokesman for Warner.
"I think they're wrong, and I think there are different standards for women, and I think the past few weeks have proven that," Slaughter said, referring to the scrutiny that Askew and two other female judges received during the legislature's opening days. Askew, who was accused of workplace sexual harassment in 2000, was not reelected by the legislature; the other two women judges were.
"They are afraid of knowledge, of strong women," Slaughter added, referring to the nine male Republicans who voted against her water board appointment.
Kevin D. Hall, a spokesman for Warner, said the governor was disappointed that Slaughter was rejected. Two of Warner's Cabinet secretaries and their staffs had lobbied on Slaughter's behalf.
"The Republican majority has denied this public service to an articulate and experienced voice for the environment," Hall said.