Against the objections of a number of senators in his caucus, Sen. Thomas K. Norment, Jr., R-James City, wants to retain his role as Senate majority leader and serve as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
“I would like to continue to lead our caucus,” Norment wrote in an email to caucus members sent Thursday afternoon, a copy of which was obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Norment said he has unified the caucus and helped preserve its majority in the recent elections.
Two paragraphs later he makes another pitch.
“I would like to chair the Finance Committee where I am senior,” he continues. “I have never abused my positions in the past and will not going forward.”
The majority leader controls the flow of legislation through the chamber, while the Finance chair has the ability to reach into almost every aspect of state government operations through his role in shaping the state budget.
The apparent Norment power play — coming on the heels of a GOP victory on Election Day to maintain the party’s 21-19 edge in the chamber — has caused a bare-knuckled rift in the Senate Republican ranks that could threaten caucus solidarity during the 2016 General Assembly session that starts Jan. 13.
“It is my strong belief that one individual should not hold both the majority leader’s spot and the chairmanship of the Finance Committee,” said Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr., R-Buckingham, who last week had publicly articulated his concerns during a radio show.
“It is entirely too much power concentrated in the hands of one person.”
Republican senators are expected to choose leadership for the coming year when they gather in Portsmouth later this week.
The outcome will depend on whether the 21-member caucus — including five new Republican senators elected last week — backs Norment to remain as majority leader. Norment, as senior Republican on the Finance Committee, is first in line to become the committee’s chairman.
Norment has served two tours as majority leader, most recently since the Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2014. But the retirement of several longtime senators, including Finance Committee co-chairman Sen. Walter A. Stosch, R-Henrico, has created a vacancy to head that committee and several others heading into the coming session.
Several senators, most prominently Garrett, have suggested that power should be shared among others in the caucus, which has a number of senior lawmakers, including at least one other member, Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Augusta, who has expressed some interest in the Finance job.
There is precedent for one person holding both powerful positions. Former Sen. Hunter B. Andrews, D-Hampton, a legislative titan whom many describe as a political model for Norment, did both jobs from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.
But Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, who will retire in January after 34 years in the General Assembly, recently said this is a different era in Virginia politics. “I don’t think that can happen again.”
In order of seniority, the next in line would be Hanger, a Shenandoah Valley moderate. He ran afoul of party conservatives by supporting expansion of health coverage for uninsured Virginians, but defeated two opponents in a GOP primary, getting 60 percent of the vote.
After Hanger, the next in line would be Sen. Stephen D. Newman, R-Lynchburg; Sen. Frank M. Ruff Jr., R-Mecklenburg; Sen. Frank W. Wagner, R-Virginia Beach; and Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, R-Hanover, who is chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus.
Hanger, who heads the Health and Human Resources Subcommittee, said recently that it would be “premature for me to forecast where we’re going. It depends on the will of the caucus” and “Senator Norment’s goals as far as leadership.”
Norment spokesman Jeff Ryer declined comment on the apparent rift, saying it is caucus policy not to comment on internal matters or correspondence.
The task of majority leader is not easy for Senate Republicans, who welcome five new members and have a younger, more conservative wing that has occasionally clashed with longer-tenured moderates, such as Norment.
The debate over who should serve in leadership roles played out over the last week in published reports and in a more private internal email chain between Norment and Garrett to the members of the Senate caucus, a copy of which was obtained by The Times-Dispatch.
In the correspondence, Norment says he is “very disturbed” by the airing of caucus business in the media.
“While I respect the right of any caucus member to express his or her opinion, I strongly object to this unprecedented public dialogue,” Norment wrote in an email on Tuesday, Nov. 10.
“We have successfully worked for eight years to build caucus unity and keep all of our disagreements internal. This recent approach is unprecedented in the 24 years I have been in the Senate. It is divisive and not helpful to our image in the institutional community.”
In the correspondence, Garrett asserts in an email Thursday that he is not interested in either job and says his only objection is “the massive consolidation of power into one set of hands.”
“Ask yourself not what is best for you, but what is best for our caucus, for our party, and for our commonwealth.”
In a subsequent email Friday, Garrett references comments by Norment from 1995, during which the senator expressed reservations about one member having both jobs.
“I earnestly believe we must not make the same mistake,” Norment said in his letter. “I think we have an incredible diversity of talent that should be fully developed. It will make us stronger as a caucus and as a majority party.”