The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin’s divisive pick for a key Cabinet post has inspired a partisan duel

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on Feb. 15 in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)
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In his inaugural address in January, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin decried “a rise in divisiveness in the public square.” Yet he is largely to blame for the opening shot in what has become a partisan impasse in the state legislature.

Days before he was sworn into office, Mr. Youngkin made a nomination for a key Cabinet post — the state’s top environmental official — who could hardly have been more divisive. From that move the current imbroglio ensued.

Predictably, the nominee, former Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler, was rejected by Virginia’s Democratic-controlled state Senate. The governor could not have been surprised. After all, Mr. Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, spearheaded the Trump administration’s assault on measures to contain climate change and protect the environment in an array of other realms. In addition to dismantling dozens of rules that limited damage from harmful pollutants and practices, he was also responsible for a uniquely toxic measure, executed days before President Donald Trump’s term ended, to block scientific input into EPA decisions about the nation’s air and water quality. The effect, researchers said, was to clear the way for corporate and other special interests whose efforts to pollute had been exposed and stymied by scientific evidence.

In retaliation for Mr. Wheeler’s rejection, Republicans in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates, apparently acting in concert with the governor, threatened to unseat roughly 1,000 Democratic appointees to state regulatory boards and commissions, some of whom had already been serving for months.

That was a nuclear option; nothing similar had taken place previously in Virginia. In fact, when Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) took office in 2014, he had a chance to disqualify several dozen appointments whose names had not been conveyed to the legislature, as required, by former Republican governor Robert F. McDonnell. Rather than substituting his own appointees, Mr. McAuliffe reappointed the GOP’s picks, opting not to inflame partisanship.

In the current dispute, Republican lawmakers backed down from the nuclear option, but still rejected 11 appointees made by Mr. Youngkin’s predecessor, Ralph Northam (D). They included three appointees to the state’s nine-member board of education, including Anthony Swann, an African American fifth-grade math and reading teacher who was Virginia’s teacher of the year in 2021.

Over the course of their four-year terms, Virginia governors are empowered to name new members to all boards and commissions as terms of sitting members expire. What Mr. Youngkin and his GOP allies in the legislature are doing, in effect, is cutting the line by removing some key Democratic appointees before the end of their terms. That’s a break with tradition that could have major policy effects. It’s also an invitation to partisan tit-for-tat, which is exactly what it produced: Senate Democrats responded by rejecting five Youngkin nominees, including four to the state parole board.

By nominating Mr. Wheeler, Mr. Youngkin set the state stumbling down the slippery slope toward government dysfunction. The right move now is de-escalation — in this case, replacing the 11 Northam appointees, who cannot be reappointed, with picks the Democrats can live with. The test for the governor is whether he will live up to his pledge to reject divisiveness.