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Climate Almanac: Virginia's new governor tries to get a coal lobbyist through the General Assembly

We conclude our Virginia series with an overview of the new state government, which is fittingly kicking off with a confirmation battle over climate

Saturday was inauguration day in Richmond, so we will close our series on the political landscape in the Old Dominion by giving an overview of the government that has just taken power.


Glenn Youngkin is sworn in. Credit: Julio Cortez / AP

In Virginia, governors are barred from serving more than one consecutive term, although they may seek additional terms after leaving office. On Saturday, Republican Glenn Youngkin was sworn in, succeeding Democrat Ralph Northam to assume the governorship. We have discussed Youngkin’s history as a climate change denier and private equity exec at length in previous posts. Since his election in November, Youngkin’s transition has gone exactly as one might expect. He has said he will remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which Northam only recently entered. He nominated former Trump EPA chief and coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as his secretary of natural resources, though his confirmation has sparked an intense fight, and the General Assembly may reject a cabinet nominee for the first time since 2006.

Andrew Wheeler, Trumping

To lead his Department of Environmental Quality, Youngkin picked Michael Rolband, an outspoken proponent of building the Mountain Valley fracked gas pipeline. As Secretary of Administration, Youngkin has chosen Lyn McDermid, a former senior vice president at Dominion. 

For the position of counselor, Youngkin picked former state AG Richard Cullen, who is somewhat of a Forrest Gump character when it comes to defending political corruption and corporate crime. Cullen’s lengthy list of famous clients as a partner at McGuireWoods includes former Vice President Mike Pence, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and Boeing following the 737 Max crashes. And he represented BP America’s chair in “litigation stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.” Youngkin also named Eric Moeller to a newly created role called chief transformation officer. It is unclear what a chief transformation officer does, but presumably it will not include transforming our economy away from fossil fuels, since Moeller was previously a trustee at an oil refinery and vice president at Valero Energy


Virginia has a part-time legislature known collectively as the General Assembly, which consists of a 40-member State Senate and a 100-member House of Delegates. The average state senate district in Virginia contains about 200,000 constituents, while there are about 80,000 constituents in the average district in the lower house. State senators are paid $18,000/year, and delegates are paid $17,640/year plus a per diem. Delegates serve two-year terms and are elected in odd years. Senators serve four-year terms and are also elected in odd years. Virginia’s constitution mandates that the General Assembly convenes on the second Wednesday in January every year. In the odd years that constitute election years in Virginia, the legislative session lasts for no longer than 60 days. In even years, the legislative session must last no longer than 30 days. 

Upper house (State Senate): 

Democrats hold a 21-19 majority in the Virginia State Senate, where all 40 senators next face election in 2023. There are 12 standing committees in the Virginia State Senate. The following leadership positions are among the most powerful:

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw has been one of Virginia’s most influential politicians for several decades. Originally elected to the House of Delegates in 1976, Saslaw has represented the Falls Church and Alexandria portions of Fairfax County in the state Senate since 1980. Aside from a failed attempt to win election to Congress in 1984, Saslaw has focused on state government, and has led the Democrats in the Senate since 1998, alternating between minority and majority leader. In 2018, Saslaw maneuvered around the Republican leadership in the Senate to secure Medicaid expansion. Despite this and other legislative successes, Saslaw has governed as a relatively conservative Democrat, and he drew a primary challenge from Yasmine Taeb in his last re-election. 

Taeb criticized Saslaw for his support for the death penalty, for his role in thwarting a $15 minimum wage, and for major corporate support from Dominion Energy, Altria, and the Virginia Bankers Association. Democratic activists accused Taeb of undermining their efforts to take back the senate majority in 2019-- a dubious claim in a safe Democratic district-- but she nevertheless came close to defeating Saslaw, who won 48-45% and seemed to benefit from the presence of another primary challenger who took a larger share of the vote than Saslaw’s margin of victory over Taeb. Saslaw has since resumed the majority leader position, and also chairs the Labor and Commerce Committee, where he unsuccessfully sought to weaken Virginia’s right-to-work law in the last legislative session.

Senate Caucus and Rules Committee Chair Mamie Locke has represented the 2nd district, based in Hampton, where she was previously mayor, since 2004. As Caucus Chair, Locke is part of a senate leadership team that also includes Vice Chair Scott Surovell (D-SD36-Fairfax), Policy Vice Chair Jeremy McPike (D-SD29-Manassas), Whips Barbara Favola (D-SD31-Arlington) Lionel Spruill (D-SD5-Chesapeake). Other noteworthy senators are Privileges and Elections Chair Creigh Deeds (D-SD25-Bath), a longtime Virginia pol who was the 2009 Democratic nominee for governor and whose personal tragedy involving his son’s death led to changes in state law, and Lynwood Lewis (D-SD6-Accomac), who chairs the Local Government Committee, which is powerful because of Virginia’s unusual degree of local preemption.

Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Janet Howell represents the 32nd Senate district, based in the Fairfax County city of Reston. The daughter of a prominent economist credited with developing the metric for gross national product, Howell grew up in the D.C. area, and taught briefly in the Philadelphia school system before returning to serve as legislative aide in the Virginia Senate. She was first elected to the state senate in 1991.

Senate Judiciary Chair John Edwards represents the 21st Senate district, based in Roanoke. Appointed by President Jimmy Carter as a US Attorney for Western Virginia in 1980, Edwards brought prosecutions against organized crime and against corruption in mine health and safety. Edwards was elected to the Roanoke city council in 1994 and then to the state senate in 1995. He came in second to Don McEachin (now a Congressman) in the 2001 Democratic primary for attorney general, though McEachin went on to lose the general election. As Judiciary Chair, Edwards bottled up a bill that would have banned assault weapons in Virginia in 2020.

Senate Agriculture, Conservation, and Natural Resources Chair Chap Petersen has represented the 34th Senate district, based in the city of Fairfax, since 2008. Prior to that, Petersen served two terms in the House of Delegates and three years on the Fairfax city council. Petersen helped block an assault weapon ban, opposed marijuana legalization, stridently pushed for school re-openings during the pandemic, and in the past was known as a staunch defender of the former name of the Washington Football Team. It all adds up to what has been called a “contrarian” streak, and analysts point to Petersen’s record of voting with Senate Democratic caucus only 67 percent of the time as evidence that he will play a Joe Manchin-type role in a divided government. Petersen is an advocate of campaign finance reform, and has championed a proposal to ban campaign contributions from Dominion. As noted by Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) author Jennifer McClellan (D-SD9-Richmond), Petersen’s committee and the agencies it oversees, such as the natural and historic resources department, will be critical in VCEA implementation. Petersen has expressed “major concerns” about Youngkin’s nomination of a former coal lobbyist as secretary of natural resources.

On the Republican side, Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-SD3-Williamsburg) will try to forge deals with Chapman and another Democrat, Senator Joe Morrissey (D-SD16-Petersburg), a roguish and controversial figure who describes himself as a pro-life Catholic. In the 2023 elections, Norment will attempt to re-claim the majority, likely focusing on re-gaining districts held by Senators Ghazala Hashmi (D-SD10-Powhatan County) and John Bell (D-SD13-Ashburn) while defending Senator Jennifer Kiggins (R-SD-Virginia Beach).

Lower house (House of Delegates):

Republicans flipped this chamber in 2021, and started the session on January 12 with a new 52-48 majority. All 100 Delegates are up for election in 2023. There are 14 standing committees in the House of Delegates. The following leadership positions are among the most powerful:

Speaker Todd Gilbert has represented the 15th legislative district in Virginia, based in the Shenandoah Valley, since 2006. Gilbert has committed to pass new voting restrictions and some sort of regulatory framework for newly legalized marijuana, though both efforts will be tempered by the Democratic state senate majority. Gilbert praised Youngkin for announcing he will pull Virginia out of the RGGI.

Majority Leader Terry Kilgore has represented the 1st legislative district, based near the Cumberland Gap in southwest Virginia, since 1994, and is part of a political family (his brother Jerry was attorney general from 2002-05). Kilgore was the only Republican legislator to support the VCEA, after securing an agreement to keep a newly opened coal plant active for fifteen years longer. Kilgore initially sought the speaker post himself, but reached an agreement with Gilbert to serve as majority leader instead.

Delegate Barry Knight is set to become Appropriations Chair. Knight has previously held leadership positions in the Virginia Farm Bureau and Tidewater Pork Producers, and has represented the Virginia Beach-based 81st legislative district since 2009.

Delegate Roxann Robinson is taking over as Finance Chair. Robinson has represented the Chesterfield County-based 27th district since 2010, having survived a close call in 2017 when she won by 124 votes. In her most recent election, Robinson received support from the Koch brother-backed LIBRE Initiative.

Delegate Lee Ware is set to become Agriculture, Chesapeake, and Natural Resources Chair. Ware was previously Finance Chair, and has represented the Powhatan County-based 65th legislative district since 1998. In the last legislative session, Ware worked with Democrats to support the Fair Energy Bills Act, an attempt by environmental groups to strengthen oversight over rates by Dominion that fell short.

Delegate Kathy Byron is the new Labor and Commerce Chair. Byron has represented the 22nd legislative district, based around Lynchburg and the Virginia Piedmont, since 1998. Byron is most well-known for writing the notorious “mandatory ultrasound” bill that Virginia’s last Republican governor signed into law, and for her 2017 attempt to pass an industry-drafted bill to restrict municipal broadband.

The Democratic leadership team will continue to be led by the outgoing speaker, Eileen Filler-Corn (D-HD41-Kings Park West), a former government relations representative and the first woman ever to lead the House of Delegates, and outgoing majority leader Charniele Herring (D-HD46-Alexandria), a former Virginia Democratic Party Chair who has emphasized criminal justice and sentencing reform. In the 2023 elections, Filler-Corn and Herring will try to win back the majority likely by focusing on seats they lost narrowly to Dels. A.C. Cordoza (R-HD91-Hampton), Karen Greenhalgh (R-HD85-Virginia Beach), and Kim Taylor (R-HD63-Petersburg).

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