PORTSMOUTH, Va. — An unusually public and bitter battle in the Virginia Senate ended Thursday with a compromise, one that curbed the powers of the GOP leader and blocked him from taking full control of a powerful finance committee.
The Senate GOP caucus, meeting behind closed doors at a Portsmouth hotel, found a way to thwart a perceived power grab by Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), while still giving him the two positions he wanted.
Norment emerged from the episode as both a winner and loser — retaining one leadership title and attaining another, but with less authority than he had sought, and only after his affair with a Richmond lobbyist got another public airing.
Appearing a little shaken and subdued as he emerged from the hotel meeting room, Norment, who had wanted the dual titles as majority leader and chairman of the chamber’s budget-writing committee, painted the outcome as for the best.
“I’m getting a little long in the tooth,” he said, suggesting that sharing some of his powers with other Republicans would help to “bring along the next generation [before] I ride my pinto into the sunset. . . . One of my strengths is, I know what my limits are.”
But in a phone interview Thursday night, Norment said that he had not been upset with the outcome. He confirmed that he will delegate some of his majority leader duties to two other senators but stressed that he gets to decide what powers he gives up.
“I decide what is going to be distributed,” he said. “I’m a pretty damn good leader and some of my responsibility as a leader is to bring some of them along.”
Republicans said the resolution would allow them to put the battle behind them and to focus on advancing their agenda in the coming legislative session. Republicans held onto their 21-to-19 majority in the Senate in elections this month.
“Now the bad news for the governor is, the caucus is united and can advance a Republican agenda,” said Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Buckingham) , who had led the charge against Norment.
The caucus retained Norment as majority leader but also agreed to give some of his responsibilities to the caucus chairman, Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover), and to a newly created co-chairman, Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham). The specific duties that McDougle and Obenshain will assume were not disclosed.
Norment had sought to hold onto that leadership role and assume the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, whose current co-chairmen are retiring. Members agreed to make Norment co-chairman of that committee with Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), although they will not formally vote on committee assignments until the General Assembly convenes in January.
Garrett had argued over the past week against giving Norment both roles. He first spoke publicly on the radio, saying on the John Fredericks Show that it would be a mistake to give one senator so much power.
Garrett made a more pointed case against Norment in e-mails to Senate Republicans, arguing that the majority leader should be replaced because of “political debacles” and “personal failures that resulted in federal ethical and criminal investigations.”
This spring, Norment acknowledged having an affair with a lobbyist whose firm regularly pushed for legislation that Norment voted for and, in two cases, sponsored. He said at the time that he had not given her bills special treatment. Federal investigators reviewed the relationship because he was a potential witness in the criminal case against a man who had tried to blackmail him over the affair. They closed the matter without criminal charges.
A heated e-mail exchange between Norment and Garrett ensued and eventually became public. Norment criticized Garrett for breaking with tradition by speaking out on the radio and in e-mails that were bound to leak.
Garrett circulated a Richmond Times-Dispatch article from 1995 that quoted Norment as saying that the Senate finance and GOP leader posts should not go to the same person, as the Democrats had done under Hunter B. Andrews.
Norment has been a member of the Senate since 1992, coming in at a time when Senate Republicans tended to be more moderate. Garrett, first elected four years ago, is part of a younger, brasher, more conservative GOP.
But Garrett, who did not seek the leadership or finance posts for himself, did not appear to be motivated by ideology. In fact, Garrett said he was pleased that Norment would share leadership of the Finance Committee with Hanger, who is socially conservative but more fiscally liberal than most Senate Republicans. Hanger was one of just three Senate Republicans — Norment not among them — who has supported a form of Medicaid expansion.
“While this is not the outcome I would have scripted, we were successful in seeing that the power of the finance chairman not be consolidated into one set of hands,” Garrett said. “Emmett Hanger is fair and is an honest broker. Emmett Hanger is a good man.”
Republicans also chose two of their more conservative members for leadership roles.
The caucus picked Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) for majority whip and announced that Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford) will be its candidate for Senate pro tempore when the chamber convenes Jan. 13. The latter role is a largely ceremonial post, but one that Norment had been in line for as the Senate’s longest-serving Republican.
After the fireworks leading up to it, the caucus meeting was anticlimactic and ended with a hug initiated by Garrett and accepted by Norment, according to several participants. The caucus announced its leadership decision via a news release an hour after the meeting began.
“It was kind of like going to the third ‘Minions’ movie: It didn’t live up to the hype,” said one participant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private caucus matters. “I think everybody realized we had to stay together.”