RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has tapped a former local elections official and ex-aide to a far-right-wing state senator to serve as Virginia's elections commissioner. The move sparked criticism Monday from both Democratic lawmakers and the GOP senator, while former colleagues of the nominee, Susan Beals, defended her as highly qualified.
The Youngkin administration quietly rolled out Beals' selection as the new commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections on Friday evening, including her name in a list of more than a dozen other appointees. She will replace Chris Piper, who was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in 2018.
Beals, who most recently served as Youngkin's director of the office of constituent services, according to a biography Youngkin’s office provided, served on the three-member Chesterfield County Electoral Board from 2019-2022. Her tenure included a stint as the board chair. Beals also previously worked in Republican politics, including as a staffer for conservative firebrand state Sen. Amanda Chase, who since the 2020 election has become a prominent promoter of former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread election fraud.
Democrats seized on the Chase connection, blasting the appointment.
Gianni Snidle, a spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said in a statement that Youngkin was “putting a dangerous, conspiracy theorist in the driver’s seat of our election systems.”
“If you were dreaming up the worst case scenario for Youngkin’s pick to replace Chris Piper it would be this," tweeted Democratic Del. Marcus Simon.
But Chase, who was censured by the Senate in 2021 and no longer caucuses with the chamber's Republicans, also rebuked the governor's pick. In an interview, Chase said she was “disappointed” and did not believe that Beals shared her convictions about alleged electoral fraud.
Chase said Beals worked for her in 2015, toward the end of her first run for her Chesterfield-area Senate seat, and in 2016, during her first General Assembly session. Beals' job included reviewing legislation and making recommendations for how Chase should vote, the senator said.
Chase said she texted Youngkin on Monday morning to let him know about her disappointment.
Beals did not respond to Associated Press interview requests sent through the governor's office and a spokeswoman for the Department of Elections.
In a statement relayed by a spokeswoman for Youngkin, Beals said she was “committed to promoting and supporting secure, accurate, open and fair elections."
“I will strive to meet the goals of the department’s strategic plan which seek to increase voter confidence in the election process and strengthen the security of the Commonwealth’s elections,” she said.
The Youngkin administration is confident in Beals' credentials, Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said.
Others who have worked with Beals vouched for her professionalism and commitment to free and fair elections.
Caroline Emmons, a Democrat who served with Beals on the Chesterfield electoral board and is currently the board chair, said Beals had been a collegial partner in implementing a number of new election laws during the two years they worked together. Beals was committed to ensuring voters had access to the ballot box and that their vote was lawfully counted, Emmons said.
“I'm glad we have a commissioner who has been in the field ... I know that she's somebody who has been out there literally on the front line of the voting process,” Emmons said.
Emmons also said that, to her knowledge, Beals did not endorse the type of election fraud falsehoods Chase has embraced.
“I’ve never heard her raise concerns about the legitimacy of (President Joe) Biden’s election,” she said.
Lynette Clements, another Democrat who served with Beals, also praised her as fair and honest. Clements said she was “personally delighted” to see Beals recognized for her talents and knowledge.
“I know she worked within her own party to make sure false notions were not advanced,” Clements said.
Jeff Ryer, the Republican Party of Virginia's 1st District Chair, said Beals recruited and supervised the elections professionals who oversaw the party's 2021 nomination count for the three statewide offices.
“She's an outstanding choice with exceptional qualifications,” said Ryer, also a spokesman for the Senate Republicans.
Piper, the former commissioner, announced in February that he planned to leave his post in March. The announcement came after Youngkin said during a conservative radio interview that he did not plan to reappoint Piper after his term expired.
Lawmakers debated a measure during this year's regular General Assembly session that would change the way the elections commissioner is selected, taking the authority away from the governor and giving it to an expanded Board of Elections.
The bill was one of dozens that lawmakers didn't wrap up before they adjourned. Due to an impasse over budget negotiations, lawmakers opted to go home and are set to come back to deal with the spending plan and remaining bills at the call of the governor.
Under the existing appointment process, Beals' selection would be subject to legislative confirmation.
Youngkin, a political newcomer and former private equity executive, made “ election integrity ” the centerpiece of last year's campaign during the nominating contest in the spring. Early on, when asked whether Biden was legitimately elected, Youngkin declined to say.
He went on to acknowledge Biden’s win and called the election "certifiably fair.”