One of the most fascinating legislators in the General Assembly is the state senator from Roanoke County — David Suetterlein.
The first-term senator, whose district runs from Carroll County to Bedford County, has emerged as one of the legislature’s most prominent critics of Dominion Energy as well as a proponent for clean energy. Most remarkably, he’s done this from the Republican side of the aisle. Suetterlein should not be mistaken for a so-called “progressive.” Instead, he’s practicing a more pristine form of conservatism that has led him to blaze a path that sometimes sets him apart from fellow Republicans. Consider:
• Utility regulation. Those of a certain age remember when the main criticism of state utilities came from the left in the form of Henry Howell, who made his name crusading in the 1960s and ‘70s against what was then called Virginia Power and today is known as Dominion Energy. To see a Republican take up that mantle is a startling development. Who would have thought that the reincarnation of Henry Howell would be a conservative?
In 2015, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, signed into a law a bill that weakened state oversight of electric utilities. Over the years, both Republicans and Democrats in Virginia have been eager to be seen as friends of the business community, and what business is bigger than Dominion Energy? Suetterlein, though, has challenged that paradigm. In 2017, he and a renegade Democrat, state Sen. Chap Petersen of Fairfax County, sponsored a bill to end what they felt were artificially high electric rates. It was defeated, of course. Last year, Suetterlein led the opposition to an industry-backed bill to change those earlier regulations, but without refunding all the money they had collected from consumers. The way Suetterlein sees it, when a state-regulated monopoly raises rates, that’s not much different from a tax increase — and as a good Republican, Suetterlein isn’t keen on tax increases. That’s a very different way of looking at state utilities, but, in Suetterlein’s eyes, a distinctly conservative one.
Likewise, Suetterlein comes to his support of renewable energy in a very different way than liberal proponents do. Some Democrats want to mandate renewable energy because it’s good for the environment. As a conservative, Suetterlein isn’t in favor of government mandates. Instead, when he says he’s in favor of the free market and consumer choice, he really means that — and believes it should apply to electricity markets, as well. This year, he introduced a bill that would have made it easier for renewable energy companies to sell their power — and for consumers to buy it. In some ways, his SB 1584 was the most interesting clean energy bill before the legislature. Tech companies who like to buy renewable energy were in favor of it. But utilities weren’t. The bill was killed in committee by a vote of 11-1. For all their protestations about being in favor of green energy, every Democrat on the panel joined with all but one of their Republican counterparts to vote down the bill.
Suetterlein also objected to Gov. Ralph Northam’s choice of David Paylor to lead the Department of Environmental Quality. Some on the left have seen Paylor as too cozy with Dominion when it comes to regulating pipelines. Unlike in Washington, most gubernatorial nominees routinely breeze through confirmation. Suetterlein had Paylor’s name pulled out of a block of nominees and put to a separate vote. Only five other senators joined him in opposing the nomination — three Democrats and two Republicans — but Suetterlein had made his point.
It’s now fashionable for some Democrats in Richmond to swear off contributions from Dominion and other utilities. Suetterlein, though, has never taken utility money. He’s the only member of the state Senate who can make that claim. (His top donor is the Republican Party of Virginia. His second biggest is the Virginia Dental Association.) None of this earns Suetterlein any credit from the environmental movement, mind you. The left-leaning group Clean Virginia has a nifty interactive map where you can type in your address to find your legislator and how much he or she has taken from utilities. For those who now refuse utility money, there’s a link encouraging people to donate — except those links only apply for Democrats. The website points out that Suetterlein doesn’t take utility money, but doesn’t provide a link or encourage people to donate — no doubt because he’s a conservative.
• Amazon. Suetterlein’s free market purism also led him to oppose the state’s incentives for Amazon. This is also a position that has created an “odd bedfellows” coalition of some on both the left and right. Their motives may be different but they arrive at the same conclusion: The state shouldn’t be giving millions to a multi-billion dollar company. “To pay one of the largest companies in the world tax dollars to put jobs in some of the wealthiest counties in the world is not a good use of tax dollars at all,” he told the state Senate. Suetterlein believes that Amazon would have likely chosen New York and Northern Virginia even without incentives — because it’s in the company’s interest to be located near the nation’s financial and government centers.
• Tuition increases. Suetterlein also has challenged the state’s establishment in another way. There’s been a move to require the governing bodies of state colleges to take public comment before raising tuition. Many colleges don’t like that; neither do many legislators, probably because they don’t want to stir up public commotion over repeated tuition increases for which they might catch some of the blame. Suetterlein thinks that kind of transparency and public comment is exactly what Virginia needs, because it might lead to more questions about how colleges are spending their money and what costs might be cut instead of tuition being raised. Suetterlein doesn’t want to see rubber-stamp boards of visitors; he wants college boards to be true governing bodies that oversee their school’s operations the way boards of supervisors and city councils oversee their government executives.
Voters who thought they were electing a cookie-cutter Republican in Suetterlein were wrong. He may be thoroughly conventional in other ways but he’s also redefining what it means to be a conservative in modern-day Virginia. Much like Henry Howell, Suetterlein is working to “Keep The Big Boys Honest.”