RICHMOND — Smiling broadly, Del. Peter F. Farrell surprised a no-nonsense education official during an early-morning hearing with a fist bump to celebrate the advancement of his bill.
It was a small legislative victory. But it was a new sign of confidence for a lawmaker who by all accounts has defined himself with caution and restraint since he began his tenure in the General Assembly three years ago with far more scrutiny than the average newcomer.
Farrell (R-Henrico) is the son of Thomas F. Farrell II, president and chief executive of Dominion Resources and one of the state’s most prominent businessmen. His uncle is Richard Cullen, chairman of McGuireWoods, the Richmond-based law firm.
Since Farrell’s election, questions have followed him about how independently he would operate from his father’s company. Would the younger Farrell be a shill for Dominion, already among the most influential players at the state Capitol? Would he be a yes man for the business interests that McGuireWoods represents?
How would he define himself apart from his powerful family?
Those questions have taken on a new resonance in the current legislative session, as Dominion works overtime to pass a controversial bill that would free it from some financial oversight. Yet they universally prompt the same answer from Farrell’s Republican and Democratic colleagues, who say the 31-year-old Farrell has never used his position to help Dominion. In fact, after a tentative start, they say, Farrell has emerged as a lawmaker with his own priorities and his own voice.
“He’s in a little, not awkward situation, but he’s very careful to not vote on anything that might reflect his father’s position,” says House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). “It’s been fun to watch Peter grow in the job and get more familiar. Peter, I think, is quite comfortable in the job now.”
Farrell says that after winning election in 2011, the pressure to avoid conflicts of interest initially made him overly careful. In his first session, he abstained on 25 votes — staying silent, he says, on any legislation remotely having to do with energy.
He recalls that someone joked at the time: “You know, Farrell, you might not want to push your voting button because there’s a lightbulb in it.”
He also abstained on bills increasing the motion picture tax credit after a Civil War drama called “Field of Lost Shoes,” co-written and produced by his father, received $1 million in grants from the state.
“The abstentions I’ve taken are very important to show that I’m trying to do this job with integrity and make sure people understand I’m not doing anything that’s improper,” the energetic lawmaker says in a rare moment of calm. “Wouldn’t do it, never have.”
The number of bills Farrell sits out on — nine in 2013 and seven in 2014 — has dropped as he has grown more confident.
And he sits on the House Commerce and Labor Committee, a sought-after assignment with oversight over some of the most heavily lobbied issues — including utility regulation — that come before the legislature.
There’s little question that Farrell’s connections give him an advantage. Eva Hardy, a former Dominion executive and longtime player in Democratic politics — and a shareholder in Farrell’s energy company, Recast Energy — describes herself as a friend who gives advice.
And when Farrell first ran for his seat, his father had a long history of prolific political giving and deep connections to business-centric Republicans, including former congressman Eric Cantor, whose 7th Congressional District overlapped with the district where Farrell was running.
Farrell moved into the district after a resignation left the Republican seat open. Party leaders scrambled to nominate a replacement, and a four-person committee chose Farrell over several others — including Dave Brat, who famously ousted Cantor in a divisive primary contest last year.
Thomas Farrell has given about $500,000 to candidates at all levels of Virginia politics over the past decade, including $120,000 to former governor Robert F. McDonnell’s campaign and his political action committee. He also consistently gave the maximum donation under federal limits directly to Cantor.
“That played a factor. Any honest person would say so,” says Steven Thomas, who sought the nod. “But that being said, Peter has acquitted himself very, very well as delegate.”
Some of Farrell’s advantage is good fortune. One of 16 freshmen entering the General Assembly in 2012, Farrell drew the highest seniority ranking out of a hat. “I almost was just like, ‘I’m really sorry,’ ” he says.
Farrell follows his great-uncle Elmon T. Gray, and Gray’s father, Garland Gray — both former state senators — in the General Assembly.
“Peter’s got a sense of family history in the General Assembly that is very important to him,” Hardy says. “That’s part of what drives him to be a good delegate.”
Yet his path to the legislature was not always obvious.
Farrell went to Collegiate School, where he ran track and was active in the theater program. He then attended the University of Virginia, where he was in a play every semester.
“Oh man, I miss it every day,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “I majored in political science, but I took every single friggin’ acting course I could.”
After graduation, the redheaded Farrell moved to New York to try to act professionally, but came home after only five months.
“I wanted to be the next Tom Hanks; clearly that has not worked out,” he says, joking about his favorite actor. “I wish I at least could have tried at least a little more than I did, even if I had completely fallen on my face — at least I would have known.”
Instead, McGuireWoods, where his father was a partner before going to Dominion, hired him to work for Frank Atkinson, head of the firm’s lobbying arm, and on the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.
A convert to Catholicism, Farrell opposes abortion. Generally, he is a reliable vote for his caucus — he was one of 30 delegates who signed on to a bill that would have criminalized abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy — but he has shown some independence.
He has chosen to focus on topics that have little to do with energy, including education and what he calls “religious liberty issues.”
In 2012, he was one of a handful of Republicans to vote “yes” on the judicial nomination of Tracy Thorne-Begland, an openly gay Richmond prosecutor, who was initially denied a seat on the bench but later was confirmed. Farrell again broke with his party last year when Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) floated a budget amendment that would have prohibited discrimination in state government on the basis of sexual orientation. Farrell voted against the Republicans’ motion to kill it.
“I see Peter as a guy who’s generally willing to work across party lines on issues on occasion,” Surovell says. “Many of the younger Republicans don’t take as hard of a line on the social issues. Peter’s one of them.”
Farrell voted against a measure that would have made the electric chair the default method of execution in Virginia, which is among the states that have complained of a shortage of lethal drugs. The measure was intended to allow executions to proceed even if lethal injection drugs are unavailable.
He understands the importance of constituent service and helped secure $2 million in state funding for Louisa County public schools after a 2011 earthquake left 40 percent of students without classrooms.
He lives west of Richmond with his wife, a nurse practitioner, and their boxer, Lexi. An investment banker at Cary Street Partners, Farrell helped found Recast Energy, a company that converts biomass to steam for industrial use. He and his brother are the biggest shareholders, and he’s quick to point out that his father is not one.
“I’m trying to carve out my own path and I love my dad, but I’m not going to let people’s prejudgments decide how I act,” he says. “I’m just going to keep my head up and keep walking.”