Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

June 10, 2014

Puckett resigns for family

By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

TAZEWELL,Va. — A veteran lawmaker who has served Virginia’s 38th senatorial district for more than 16 years resigned Monday in a surprise move with statewide political ramifications.

“I have been grateful for the opportunity to serve my constituents from Southwest Virginia for the past 16 years,” Phillip Puckett said in a statement released to the Daily Telegraph. “And, my family has sacrificed greatly to allow me to serve, especially considering how far we live from the state Capitol.

“But that family sacrifice is now too great. Due to recent developments in our family, I feel I should be more available to them. They have supported me during the 16 years that I have served the people of Virginia and now I will devote my time to them.”

Puckett, a Democrat, was elected to the Virginia Senate in 1999 following the retirement of former Sen. Jack Reasor. His legislative district included much of the historic coalfields of Southwest Virginia, including Tazewell and Buchanan counties.

Puckett’s surprise resignation Monday gives Republicans a one-seat advantage in the state Senate where lawmakers are currently involved in a bitter dispute over whether to accept federal Medicaid dollars under the new Affordable Care Act law that could lead to a state government shutdown on July 1.

Puckett said his continued service in the Senate presents a direct conflict with his own daughter.

“My daughter, who is an established attorney in Russell County, has been appointed by area judges to serve in a temporary capacity as a juvenile court judge,” Puckett said.

“She cannot be confirmed into the position permanently as long as I serve in the General Assembly. My colleagues on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that she is fully qualified for the position.

“At this point in my life, I feel that I cannot allow my political career to hamper my daughter's future and her desire to serve the families and children of our area on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

“While I regret the circumstances, I stand by the ethical rule that generally prohibits the appointment of judges who are directly related to sitting legislators.

“But this is not the sole reason for my resignation. My family is dealing with several difficult issues that need our attention. These are private matters and I ask that you respect our privacy in working through them as a family.”

Puckett said he mailed a letter of resignation to Senate President Pro Tempore Charles Colgan on Saturday. His resignation was effective Monday.

Puckett said some media reports have suggested that he is resigning to accept a paid employment with the Virginia Tobacco Commission.

“Those reports are incorrect,” Puckett said. “I have never been officially offered a job by the Tobacco Commission. As stated previously, I have resigned from the Senate of Virginia due to the recent issues that have developed in our family and require our full attention.”

Puckett said he is asking voters to accept his decision and give his family the privacy they desire as they work through the issues.

Puckett said he still supports expanding the federal Medicaid program in Virginia.

“As a state senator representing the 38th Senatorial District, I strongly supported the Senate budget and Medicaid expansion and defended those who were without health care,” Puckett said.

“I voted with my colleagues in a bipartisan 23-17 vote. My resignation now leaves that vote at 22-17 and remains as a favorable status for the budget and Medicaid expansion in the Senate.

“It is my heartfelt prayer that the General Assembly will be able to close the gap for health care coverage for all Virginians.”

Tazewell County Registrar Brian Earls said officials are still awaiting word on if a special election will be called to fill the Senate vacancy, or if the office simply will be placed on the Nov. 4 ballot.

He said both political parties would have to hold a primary or convention to come up with a candidate.

But already candidates are announcing their intent to seek the vacant 38th senatorial district seat. Delegate A. Benton “Ben” Chafin Jr., R-Russell, said in a statement Monday to the Daily Telegraph that he will seek the Republican nomination for the seat vacated by Puckett.

“It has never been more important for Southwest Virginia to have a strong, effective voice in the Virginia Senate,” Chafin said.

 “With Washington Democrats imposing an extreme agenda that will cripple our mining industry, an economy that has yet to recover from the Great Recession, and an ongoing budget stalemate in the General Assembly that endangers funding for our schools and public safety professionals, we must have lawmakers in Richmond who will stand up and fight for Southwest.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office said in a statement Sunday to The Associated Press that he was deeply disappointed by the resignation of Puckett and the uncertainty that it creates around expanding Medicaid.

The Democratic-controlled Senate had given McAuliffe leverage against the Republican-controlled House of Delegates in his push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, also dubbed as “Obamacare” by critics.

Puckett’s resignation means there will be 20 Republicans to 19 Democrats in the Senate. Republicans also have a majority advantage in the House of Delegates. McAuliffe is a Democrat.

— Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com