RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Democrats wielded their slim majority in the Virginia Senate to reject four of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s picks for the Parole Board — including a New River Valley sheriff — and an appointee for the state’s Safety and Health Codes Board.
With a 21-19 party-line vote on Thursday, March 10, the state Senate blocked the appointments of Charlottesville attorney Tracy Banks; former Richmond police officer Cheryl Nici-O’Connell; Montgomery County Sheriff Charles ‘Hank’ Partin; and Carmen Williams, legal services project manager at Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, to the Virginia Parole Board.
The vote will also keep Tina Hoover from being appointed to Virginia’s Safety and Health Codes Board.
In their defense of the move, Senate Democrats brought up a decision from Virginia House Republicans in February that removed 11 of former Gov. Ralph Northam’s outstanding appointments to executive agencies and state boards.
“I think that the House needs to be taught a lesson,” state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said on the Senate floor during Thursday’s debate over the resolution.
“I think it’s shocking and it’s shameful,” Youngkin told WFXR News’ Capital Bureau reporter Jackie DeFusco. “Here we have the Democrats doing everything they can to continue to cover up what has been an absolute violation of law by the Democratic-controlled Parole Board.”
The battle over Youngkin’s appointments was waged last month after Senate Democrats backed up a promise to stop former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler from becoming Virginia’s secretary of natural resources. House Republicans then decided not to elect Angela Navarro, a State Corporation Commission judge appointed by Northam, to a full term.
“It could have ended there. It wasn’t us who escalated it,” Senate Democratic Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said Thursday. “Don’t come to me crying about this when it was one group, and not on this side, that chose to escalate this war.”
House Republicans then blocked Northam appointees for the Board of Education, the Safety and Health Codes Board, the State Air Pollution Control Board, the State Water Control Board and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
A week later, Ebbin and Senate Democratic leaders sent a letter to Youngkin and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle making clear that a move like the one made Thursday was possible if the governor didn’t revive Northam’s appointments.
“Unfortunately, unless you reappoint all eleven of these public servants there will be tremendous pressure to apply this precedent in turn to future Youngkin appointees. For the sake of the General Assembly as an institution, this is not a path we wish to take,” the Feb. 18 letter read.
Youngkin called Democrats’ arguments that House Republicans and his administration compounded the problem “a charade” and an effort to derail his pledge to bring changes to a Parole Board fraught with controversy.
“I’m not fooled by this at all. I know what they’re up to,” Youngkin said of Democrats. “We will reform the Parole Board.”
Youngkin will have to wait to make new appointments until after the end of the 2022 General Assembly session, which is slated to end on March 12 but could be extended. The legislature confirmed Youngkin’s appointment of Chadwick Dotson as the new chairman of the Virginia Parole Board.
“No effort by the majority of this Senate will stop that process,” state Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) said Thursday. “No matter how much they try.”
Youngkin acknowledged Thursday that he will need to appoint new members to the Parole Board and that Dotson will be the only member until that process is worked out. The governor added that Wheeler is still serving in the administration as secretary, but conceded he would have to find someone else for the role unless lawmakers revived his appointment before the legislative session ends.
Just hours after he was sworn in, Youngkin followed through on one of his key campaign promises and fired the entire Virginia Parole Board. He signed an executive order appointing five new members and directing the secretary of public safety and homeland security to conduct a review of the board with recommended changes no later than Sept. 1.
State Sen. Steve Newman (R-Lynchburg) said the appointments scuttled by Democrats had nothing to do with the partisan back-and-forth between the chambers, calling the people Youngkin picked “thoroughly qualified” and saying Thursday’s vote “sets a whole new low precedent.”
High profile cases made headlines and the state investigator who led the investigations into the board in 2020 was fired after filing a whistleblower lawsuit. That former state employee filed a wrongful termination lawsuit alleging defamation by senior state officials.
Youngkin, Attorney General Jason Miyares and other Republicans made the scandal surrounding the parole board a main talking point on the campaign trail, accusing the Northam administration and Democrats of being weak on crime and vowing to replace the board if elected.
State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) called the move from Democrats “pure political retribution” and said it would hold up those who are currently seeking parole as the board will be without four of five members once the session ends. “This is cutting off your nose to spite your face.”