By Paige Baxter and Sam Isaacs
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Every senator has had a voice in a committee this legislative session except one – Sen. Kenny Alexander, D-Norfolk.
Alexander, who succeeded the late Yvonne Miller in representing the 5th Senate District, was not assigned to a committee for the first 13 days of the General Assembly’s session. But on Thursday afternoon, the Senate finally appointed Alexander to fill three of Miller’s four committee assignments.
“The Republicans had control and had not come to a consensus on what to do with Sen. Miller’s committee assignments. That is why it took so long,” said Sen. George Barker, a Democrat from Alexandria.
Alexander now fills Miller’s seat on three Senate committees: Commerce and Labor, Rehabilitation and Social Services, and Transportation. He also has a new assignment, on the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.
However, Miller’s fourth and most important assignment – a seat on the Senate Finance Committee – was awarded to a Republican, in what Democrats called a case of partisan politics.
Miller died of stomach cancer on July 3, the day before her 78th birthday. She had served from 1984 through 1987 in the House of Delegates and since 1988 in the Senate. She was the first African-American woman to serve in either chamber. At the time of her death, Miller was the longest-serving woman in the Senate.
Alexander, who had been a delegate since 2002, was elected in a special election in September to fill the 5th Senate District seat. The district includes parts of Norfolk and Chesapeake.
A senator does not automatically take the spots left by his or her predecessor. Instead, the new member is re-assigned in what Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, called “a custom practice of procedure.”
While Alexander eventually received three of Miller’s committee assignments, he did not get her most powerful post: a seat on the Finance Committee, which has a critical role in writing the state budget. Instead, a Republican – Sen. Charles Carrico of Galax – was selected to take Miller’s spot on that panel.
As a result, the Finance Committee now has 10 Republicans and five Democrats, Barker noted. (The entire Senate is evenly divided between the two parties, with 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who presides over the Senate and can cast tie-breaking votes, is a Republican.)
Republican leaders maintained that they appointed Carrico to the Finance Committee to provide geographic balance: He represents the 40th Senate District in Southwest Virginia.
But Barker said the move was partisan politics, and that the seat could have gone to a Democratic senator from Southwest Virginia such as Phil Puckett of Tazewell or John Edwards of Roanoke.
“The decision is highly unfortunate. Sen. Puckett should have been appointed,” Barker said. “There is a 2-to-1 majority-to-minority ratio in the most important of all the committees.”
According to Barker, the members of a committee should reflect an equal, fair representation of the state.
Five years ago, when the Democrats held the majority in the Senate, they gave Republicans proportionate representation on committees, Barker said. He said there was never a split as wide as the current one in the Senate Finance Committee.
“When we were in power in 2008, we kept tried to keep committees balanced,” Barker said. “The Senate is tied. So even though the Republicans are not the majority, they still stacked the committee.”