Column: Fox in the Chicken Coop

The General Assembly convenes at noon today, Jan. 12, for its annual legislative session. There has been much speculation since the November election as to the direction the Commonwealth might be heading with the change in partisan control of the three statewide offices and the House of Delegates. The newly-elected Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General were known quantities in state politics having served in the House of Delegates. The newly-elected governor who will take the oath of office at noon on Saturday, Jan. 15, does not have any elective office experience. After having run a campaign of having to thread a needle among the various factions of his party, it has remained somewhat a mystery as to the direction he might pursue. That was especially true until he had to start taking action to organize his new government.

The new governor set off a firestorm of opposition last week when he announced his pick to be the next Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources. Making up for any lack of experience that he may have in the environmental area, Governor-elect Youngkin announced that he would name former Trump Administration head of the Environmental Protection Agency Andrew Wheeler as Virginia’s chief protector of its rich natural heritage. The reaction from those who have worked in natural resource protection in Virginia was immediate. 

The Virginia League of Conservation Voters issued a press release stating that Wheeler had “presided over an unprecedented rollback of environmental safeguards intended to protect clean air and water across our country — damage that the agency is still working to repair.” The leader of the organization went further and described the Wheeler nomination as “hands down the most extreme nomination for an environmental post in Virginia’s history and the absolute worst pick the governor-elect could make.”

I share the concerns expressed by the League of Conservation Voters with one exception. I believe the nomination of Becky Norton Dunlop to be the Secretary of Natural Resources in Virginia in 1993 by Governor George Allen to be the worst nomination to ever have been made to a Virginia cabinet post. Dunlop gained her experience in dismantling environmental protection agencies in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, and she wreaked havoc on the environmental protection agencies in the state. It was as many at the time expressed “like having a fox in the chicken coop.”  

Emerging evidence indicates that Wheeler will compete with or even exceed the damage done to environmental protection by Dunlop. In July 2019 the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a list in its blog of “10 Ways Andrew Wheeler Has Decimated EPA Protections in Just One Year.” (https://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/andrew-wheeler-decimated-epa/) Among the concerns was Wheeler’s gutting of the Obama-era coal ash rule after Wheeler had worked as a coal industry lobbyist. He rolled back Clean Water Act protections even as concerns have been raised about the quality of water in this country.

Environmentalists and activists are hard at work bringing the Wheeler record to the attention of the members of the General Assembly who must confirm his nomination. I oppose the nomination, but the history in Virginia is that the governor gets to pick the people in his administration even if it may mean another fox in the chicken coop.

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