Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

August 29, 2010

Bold moves by southern W.Va. Republicans may open the door for Dems

Many in Mercer County were left shaking their heads last week when two apparent front-runners for state legislative seats were passed over in favor of new candidates.

The issue began months ago with the death of state senator Don Caruth. Although a Republican in a Democratic-controlled statehouse, Caruth made his mark as a freshman senator. His intelligence, affable personality and ability to compromise garnered respect from lawmakers across the state, and on both sides of the aisle.

Caruth quickly rose through the ranks and was named Senate minority leader. When Caruth passed away earlier this year from cancer, it left a huge void in the southern West Virginia legislative bloc. The obvious choice to replace him was Del. John Shott, R-Mercer, who, although early in his tenure in the House of Delegates, had also developed a strong reputation among lawmakers in both parties.

Shott was quickly nominated to replace Caruth, and was soon appointed to his vacant seat by Gov. Joe Manchin.

In accepting the appointment, Shott gave up a sure thing. He had already won his party’s nomination for the 24th District House seat in the May primary, and was running unopposed this November.

Simply put, Shott’s place in the Legislature was firm, and he was going back to Charleston. He gave this up to fill Caruth’s unexpired term.

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Meanwhile, Shott’s acceptance to the Senate seat left a vacancy in the House, and the Republican party placed three nominees before Gov. Joe Manchin to fill Shott’s now-vacated seat. The nominees included William “Bill” Paul Cole III, Marty Gearheart and Ron Satterfield. The governor selected Cole last May.

Bill quickly moved into his new role, taking part in interims and a special session during the summer months. Locally, many people I spoke with were happy with Bill’s appointment, believing he was a strong voice for business, yet one that would also represent the interests of the deep south counties. Also, most thought Bill had the ability to work across party lines for the best interest of the people he served.

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A few weeks ago, many political observers in Mercer County would have agreed that the GOP ballot would have two strong candidates this November: John Shott, running for the 10th District Senate Seat, and Bill Cole, running unopposed in the 24th District House seat.

But things can and do change quickly.

During a convention to elect a candidate for the 10th Senatorial District, delegates nominated Philip L. “Phil” Stevens of Grassy Meadows in Summers County by a 14-to-12 vote. The 10th District seat includes a large portion of Mercer County, all of Monroe, Summers and Greenbrier counties, and a small section of Fayette County.

Roman Stauffer, chairman of the Mercer County Republican committee, called the vote “scandalous,” saying he believed “it was a vote against Mercer County.”

Stevens, who has previously launched unsuccessful bids for both the House and Senate, had garnered commitments from many of the delegates in attendance at the convention, according to Stauffer, who noted, “they had given their word and they wanted to stick by him.”

Historically Mercer County, with its large population base, has been the deciding vote in the Senate races, and Shott’s absence on the ballot appears to have left an opening for Democratic challenger Mark Wills, of Princeton, to take the seat.

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The Mercer County Republican Executive Committee’s vote for the 24th District House seat was also surprising to many. Instead of placing Cole on the ballot, the committee voted for Gearheart, who has previously launched several unsuccessful bids for the U.S. House of Representatives 3rd District Congressional seat.

When news of Gearheart’s nomination was reported, many assumed Cole had opted not to place his hat in the ring. But that wasn’t the case.

Speaking with Cole last week, I learned he believed he was the committee’s choice. A week before the vote, Cole said seven of the nine committee members had voiced their support for him. Another told Cole, “I look forward to working with you.”

The ninth member — Gearheart — told Cole he would not support him. Preceding the vote, Gearheart put his name in the running for the nomination. Ultimately, Gearheart won the nomination, and Cole said he was “blind sided.”

Gearheart said Friday he recused himself and did not vote. And, he said, he let it be known he was interested in the seat as soon as John Shott abandoned the ballot position.

While Gearheart said he couldn’t speak for the committee members, he noted “I think they know me, and based on that felt I was qualified and would do a good job.”

Stauffer said the vote put many committee members in a “tough situation,” as many knew Gearheart and had worked with him for several years.

“A lot of them didn’t want to cast that vote,” Stauffer said. “Several members of the committee called me and asked if they had to vote.”

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This unusual turn of events on the November GOP ballot have many speculating. A great many observers believe Democrat Wills will now easily capture the Senate seat.

And the race may not yet be over for Gearheart. Mercer County Democrat Party Chairman Mike Vinciguerra said Friday that the Democrats are actively seeking a write-in candidate to run against Gearheart in the 24th District House race.

The decision by southern West Virginia Republicans to place two previous unsuccessful candidates on the ballot this November is a bold move — and one that has some Democrats smiling at the turn of events.

Samantha Perry is managing editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com.

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