“I know he’s new to Virginia government and all but @GlennYoungkin does understand cabinet secretaries require General Assembly approval --- right?” state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) tweeted.
U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) called Wheeler “an anti-environment ideologue.” Sierra Club Virginia decried the move as “one of the most dangerous appointments in our state’s history.”
Youngkin’s spokesman declined to comment on the criticism, pointing only to the news release announcing the nomination, which praised Wheeler as an Eagle Scout with a law degree and MBA who has dedicated his career to “advancing sound environmental policies.”
“Together, we will address Virginia’s ongoing environmental, energy, and natural resources challenges, including protecting the Chesapeake Bay, fully funding our best management practices, solving longstanding stormwater management issues, and establishing a Coastal Virginia Resiliency Authority,” Youngkin said in the release.
Wheeler’s rocky reception could portend a difficult confirmation process — a rarity in Richmond, where the governor’s Cabinet appointees are seldom rejected. That hasn’t happened since 2006, when Republicans in the House of Delegates rejected former AFL-CIO chief Daniel G. LeBlanc as secretary of the commonwealth under then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D).
Compared with other recent incoming governors, Youngkin has been slow to roll out Cabinet nominees — leaving lobbyists and others with interests before state government wondering just what the administration will look like. Deliberately short on policy specifics on the campaign trail as he courted both Trump supporters and suburban moderates, Youngkin has left few clues since Election Day as to how he will govern. He has granted few interviews and limited public appearances to campaign-style events.
Youngkin’s Cabinet nominations have done little to fill in the blanks, because most have been people from outside of government. One notable exception landed earlier in the week, when Youngkin named as his counselor Richard Cullen — a former U.S. attorney, state attorney general and longtime law firm chairman who is the very definition of establishment Richmond.
If the Cullen pick suggested that Youngkin does not intend to upend “government as usual,” the Wheeler nomination seemed to convey just the opposite — that the Republican is not done with red meat any more than he is with his suburban-dad red vest.
“This is one of the most powerful early indications that the governor-elect is not interested in a go-along, get-along model of working with Democrats in the legislature,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist.
“Traditionally governors have received a great deal of latitude from the legislature for their selections, but those selections have also not been ones designed to rile up the other side. This is a departure from that. This is a Trump pick, not a Larry Hogan pick,” Farnsworth said, referring to Maryland’s moderate Republican governor.
Youngkin, who takes office Jan. 15, named Wheeler for the secretary post, along with Michael Rolband for director of environmental quality. He said both men “share my vision in finding new ways to innovate and use our natural resources to provide Virginia with a stable, dependable, and growing power supply that will meet Virginia’s power demands without passing the costs on to the consumer.”
Later Wednesday, Youngkin announced Margaret “Lyn” McDermid, who previously served as the Federal Reserve’s chief information officer and director of information technology, as his secretary of administration.
Early last month, Youngkin told a business group he will use executive action to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a carbon cap-and-trade market among states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. It was part of sweeping environmental legislation that also set a goal of going carbon-free by 2050.
While environmentalists blasted the move, Republicans — including incoming state House speaker Todd Gilbert (Shenandoah) cheered, saying the compact cost residential customers money — about $52 a year — without doing much to reduce pollution.
Gilbert and other Republicans in the legislature did not weigh in on the Wheeler nomination on social media. But state Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-King George), a member of the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, said he was impressed with Wheeler, who served with him on one of the Youngkin transition’s “landing teams.”
“He is highly qualified and very competent,” said Stuart, who is considered one of the most pro-environment Republicans in the state Senate.
But Democrats, who greeted most of Youngkin’s prior appointments with shrugs, cranked out public statements — including those from outgoing state House speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (Fairfax) and U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin (Va.).
“A former coal lobbyist, Wheeler developed and implemented counterproductive policies [under Trump] that disregarded scientific advice, loosened emissions standards, allowed for unsafe levels of PFAS in drinking water, rolled back protections for our nation’s waterways, and undermined our global standing as a partner in the fight against climate change by rescinding the Clean Power Plan,” McEachin said in a written statement.
“Obviously the Governor-elect is struggling to fill out his cabinet — way behind his predecessors with only weeks to go before he takes office — but scraping Trump’s EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler from the bottom of the barrel is completely unacceptable,” tweeted Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax). “He cannot be confirmed.”