The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia governor’s embattled nominee appears to get a second chance

Former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, right, who has been nominated by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to be Virginia’s secretary of natural and historic resources, testifies before state lawmakers in Richmond on Jan. 25, 2022. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s embattled nominee for natural resources secretary emerged from an hour-long grilling by a state Senate committee Tuesday with at least one Democrat open to bucking his party to rescue the seemingly doomed Cabinet pick.

“I am very much open to approving his nomination,” Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond) said of Andrew Wheeler, who served as Environmental Protection Agency chief under President Donald Trump. “Let’s just say that he’s got a fighting chance.”

Wheeler would only need support from one Democrat in the narrowly divided Senate to win confirmation as secretary of natural and historic resources.

Youngkin nominates Trump EPA chief Andrew Wheeler for secretary of natural resources

Virginia’s General Assembly rarely rejects a governor’s Cabinet nominees, but Democrats and environmentalists expressed outrage this month when Youngkin (R) named Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who led a rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations under Trump.

Morrissey’s potential support for Wheeler caught some Democrats by surprise, including Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax).

“I haven’t talked with Joe, but when we had polled the whole caucus, all of them said they were opposed,” he said Tuesday evening.

Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) remained skeptical of Wheeler, who had suggested in the hearing that his Washington experience would help him find federal dollars for Virginia.

“Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Don McEachin can get us way more federal funding than Trump’s chief EPA dismantler can,” Surovell said in a text message, referring to the state’s U.S. senators and a congressman, respectively, who are all Democrats.

The Virginia Conservation network tweeted: “Don’t bring DC politics to Virginia — either you support ChesapeakeBay funding, or you don’t. And Andrew Wheeler has already shown that he cares about playing politics over our state’s well-being. #OpposeWheeler #SaveTheBay.”

But Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter was upbeat after his appearance. “Today, Secretary Wheeler clearly demonstrated his exceptional qualifications,” she said in an email. “His deep experience on critical issues for our environment was evident and he is particularly passionate about ending the dumping of raw sewage into the James River. We are fortunate to have him serve.”

With every Senate Democrat initially lined up against Wheeler, he was widely perceived as headed for defeat before his appearance Tuesday afternoon in front of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. He presented himself there as an Eagle Scout who believes in climate change, science and the concept of environmental justice, who cares about the health of the Chesapeake Bay and who has a record of cleaning up Superfund sites.

Wheeler began by speaking deferentially to the committee, asking as he stepped up to the lectern whether it was “all right to take off my mask.” He said some of his background and record had been misunderstood or misrepresented.

Skeptical Democrats quizzed him on specifics, starting with Sen. Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. (D-Accomack), who said he had “trouble squaring” Wheeler’s professed interest in bay cleanup with an $82 million funding cut in one bay program under Trump.

Wheeler attributed the cut to “a political issue between the White House and Congress” but said he found “well over $1 billion” to support the Chesapeake.

Lewis asked Wheeler about Youngkin’s plan to 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 passed under a Democrat-controlled General Assembly in 2020 that also set a goal of going carbon free by 2050.

Wheeler noted Youngkin’s concern that RGGI, as it is known, is raising costs for ratepayers, estimated at about $52 per year for the average customer. But Wheeler also said that there are other ways to reduce greenhouse gases and that the state is “on a glidepath to reduce” carbon dioxide. He also said “part of that decision [to withdraw] would be decided by the legislature” — something that legislators have said but Youngkin has not conceded.

Youngkin says he will take Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to save ratepayers money

Morrissey, a member of the committee, asked him some of the most pointed questions.

After hearing Wheeler portray himself as someone who has fought against air pollution and for drinking water, to improve coastal resiliency, Morrissey said he was left wondering: “Why do you think you’re such a lightning rod of controversy among environmental groups? What I’ve heard today … all sounds good.”

Wheeler said he thought media organizations opposed to Trump refused to cover anything positive the administration did for the environment.

“I don’t think the things I did at EPA were covered very well by the press,” he said.

Morrissey said in an interview with The Washington Post afterward that he was open to supporting the nominee, which could lead to a 20-to-20 tie vote in the Senate. Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R) would have the power to break the tie.

Morrissey has broken with his party at times on certain issues, including abortion. He considers himself “pro-life.” Earlier this week, Morrissey texted conservative radio host John Fredericks during an interview with Youngkin to voice support for charter schools.

“I believe in giving people second chances and opportunities,” Morrissey said. “And if any … Democrat had come in there with those credentials that he recited and those accomplishments, the person’s nomination would go flying through. … I’m not going to tar and feather him because his boss was an anti-climate change individual.”