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4 more Democratic senators raise concerns about Youngkin's choice for secretary of natural resources

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State Sens. Chap Petersen (left) and Joe Morrissey, seen here in February, are among those concerned about the choice of Andrew Wheeler to be secretary of natural resources.

Four more Democratic state senators said Thursday that they have concerns about or will oppose GOP Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s nominee for secretary of natural resources, signaling that the Senate might try to stop former EPA director Andrew Wheeler from becoming a Virginia Cabinet secretary.

Sens. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City; Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack; John Edwards, D-Roanoke; and Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, all expressed concerns about Wheeler’s nomination, which is subject to General Assembly approval.

The four are among the more independent-minded Democratic senators and have differed with their party at times. Their collective concern could indicate the most challenging path to legislative approval for a Virginia Cabinet appointee in more than a decade.

Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, tried to roll back environmental safeguards as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2019 to 2021; three former EPA directors who had served under Republican presidents expressed concerns about Wheeler in 2019.

Youngkin’s announcement sparked outrage from Democrats and environmental groups on Wednesday. Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, suggested Republicans should join Democrats in stopping Wheeler from taking the post.

Lewis echoed that in an interview on Thursday, saying Youngkin’s selection sent the wrong message to people concerned about environmental issues, sea level rise and coastal resiliency.

“I’m a traditionalist. I firmly believe that you win an election, you get to put your team together,” Lewis said. “But, you know, there are limits to that, and we’re certainly there I think.”

Petersen, in a newsletter to constituents on Thursday, said he had “major concerns” about Youngkin’s choice of Wheeler. Petersen is chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee and wrote that “this is a critical selection and any Secretary must have a pro-conservation record and philosophy, regardless of party.”

Edwards said he had received “a number of complaints locally” about the Wheeler announcement, including from Roanoke environmental advocate Rupert Cutler.

“He said, ‘This appointment must be overturned,’” Edwards said.

“I believe in a strong environment and protecting the environment,” Edwards said. “I’ll look carefully at what the guy’s record is, but from what I’ve heard, we should probably not be electing him.”

Youngkin will be sworn in on Jan. 15 after eight years of Democratic control of the Executive Mansion. Democrats control the state Senate 21-19, and Youngkin’s party will have a 52-48 edge in the House of Delegates.

It’s rare that the legislature rejects a Virginia governor’s Cabinet appointee.

In 2006, House Republicans rejected Gov. Tim Kaine’s choice of Daniel LeBlanc, former head of the state AFL-CIO, as secretary of the commonwealth. LeBlanc opposed the state’s right-to-work law.

In 2010, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, facing Democratic opposition, withdrew the nomination of Richmond businessman Robert C. Sledd to be secretary of commerce and trade and appointed him as an unpaid senior economic adviser. Sledd wanted to retain three corporate boardships while serving as the commerce secretary, which Democratic senators saw as a potential conflict of interest, even after he offered to retain only one boardship.

Morrissey said there’s growing opposition to Wheeler from Democrats.

“I think this choice could be in trouble.”

Morrissey said he thinks there will be plenty of areas for both parties to work together because the chambers are so evenly divided, and he plans to work with Republicans. He said he wants Youngkin to succeed because that means Virginia succeeds. But the Wheeler choice was surprising, Morrissey said, and he doesn’t like Wheeler’s record at the EPA of trying to roll back environmental safeguards.

“Perhaps he may reconsider that choice,” Morrissey said of Youngkin.

Asked for any reaction, Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter referred to the governor-elect’s Wednesday statement saying Wheeler shares Youngkin’s vision for energy and natural resources.

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pwilson@timesdispatch.com; (804) 649-6061; Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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