Slaughter dissed: Republicans say no to environmentalist

Last summer, when Governor Mark Warner named former mayor Kay Slaughter to the State Water Control Board, it seemed like a sure thing. After all, most gubernatorial appointments are routinely approved by the General Assembly.

That wasn't the case on January 28 when Republicans on the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted along party lines to block confirmation of Slaughter's appointment, seven months after it was made.

Slaughter, an attorney for Southern Environmental Law Center, had sued the State Water Control Board to stop Newport News from building a reservoir on the Mattaponi River in King William County. Calling that a clear conflict of interest, the committee first gave her the option of withdrawing her name from consideration. Slaughter declined, and her fate was sealed with the 9-4 vote against her. On February 3, the full Senate rejected her nomination with a close 20-19 vote.

"Once the General Assembly rejects you, you can't be reappointed," says Senator Creigh Deeds, who represents Albemarle County and who sits on the committee.

Slaughter was not surprised by the committee vote. "I was told a week ago they were going after me," she says. She had higher hopes for the Senate vote, where she picked up three Republican votes. "I felt like there it would be less partisan."

Overall, though, Republicans reportedly were not impressed with her efforts to distance herself from the Newport News suit.

"I think she went out of her way to clear that," says Deeds, a Democrat in the minority on the committee. "She removed herself as counsel of record on the case, she removed herself from participating in the case, SELC agreed not to appear before the Water Control Board while she was in office, and she said if the Newport News case came up while she was in office, she'd leave the building," he says.

Deeds says he's disturbed by the "new standards" applied to Slaughter, arguing, "I don't know anybody with more expertise than Kay Slaughter."

In the past, says Deeds, "We've approved the appointments of spouses and business partners with the clear appearances of impropriety, but the governor has the prerogative of making that appointment."

Democrat Delegate Mitch Van Yahres agrees that the rejection of Slaughter's appointment is unprecedented. "If that's conflict of interest, half our boards and committees have conflicts," he says.

"When we were in the majority, the rule we had was that whatever the governor wants– even if we didn't agree with his choice– he gets," says Van Yahres. "They're his people."

Republican Peter Way believes the governor has a prerogative– within reason. "I don't think he can run roughshod," says the former delegate. "I'm surprised he made the appointment in the first place. I thought he'd recognize the conflict."

Way describes Slaughter as "certainly qualified on paper for the position, but she's also the epitome of a partisan, highly liberal Democrat." He adds that people frequently don't get appointed for those reasons.

"I was on the Commission on Local Government, and I knew I wouldn't be reappointed to that because I'm a partisan Republican," says Way.

Political expert Larry Sabato says that while the vast majority of a governor's appointees are approved, not all are. "It's not unprecedented, but it is rare," he says, noting that the General Assembly blocked some of Governor Jim Gilmore's appointments.

Slaughter has her own theory about why she wasn't confirmed: "I think it's to embarrass the governor because I'm the first environmental advocate on this board in 10 years."

"She's been an advocate for so long she's probably stepped on some toes," says Deeds.

Van Yahres concurs. "I think the Republicans found a target," he says. "She had stirred them up for years as an environmentalist."

Beyond being green, Slaughter thinks there's another reason Republicans voted against her. "Unconscious or not, they pick on women," she says. "They can't stand to see a strong advocate."

That theme was echoed January 29 by Senator Leslie Byrne, who accused the Republican majority of abusing its power and sending a message that "no matter how competent a woman is, no matter how qualified a woman is, or the breadth or depth of her support in the community, if the GOPers want to get her, they can," according to the Associated Press.

However Senator Ken Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, who led the charge against Slaughter, denies that Republicans are anti-women, pointing out that 360 women have been appointed to positions, reports the AP. In fact, Slaughter was the only one of Warner's appointees not confirmed.

Slaughter already has attended three meetings and two hearings of the seven-member citizens' board that issues permits, passes regulations, initiates legal action, and in general sets water policy. Local developer Hunter Craig is chairman of the board.

She feels her experience as an environmental advocate could help the board because the issues are often complicated and "the board becomes a rubber stamp." Just knowing the questions to ask the Department of Environmental Quality, says Slaughter, is helpful to clarify the process.

In her statement to the Privileges and Elections committee, Slaughter said that if confirmed, she'd seek a formal opinion from the Virginia State Bar and would resign if a conflict were found.

Ethics counsel for the State Bar Jim McCauley wrote an informal six-page opinion that Slaughter presented to the Senate confirming that she's taken appropriate steps to avoid conflict of interest.

State Bar president Ben DiMuro says that conflicts of interest fall into two categories: those that can be waived by setting up barriers to improper influence, and those that are not waivable because, despite good faith, the conflict is so strong.

Without commenting specifically on Slaughter's case, DiMuro says, "There are very few conflicts that are not waivable."

Slaughter has another theory on the conflict of interest argument: "It's politics, pure politics."

Slaughter seems reconciled to her decision to go before the committee rather than withdraw from the position. "I felt good that I answered the questions," she says. "Sometimes all you can do is stand up and let the chips fall where they may."