by Ron Gregory
Ten former employees in the West Virginia secretary of state’s office have filed wrongful discharge suits against current Secretary Mac Warner. The actions were filed in Kanawha County circuit court and have been assigned to Judge Louis “Duke” Bloom.
Warner, the first Republican secretary of state since Betty Ireland left office in 2009, discharged 16 employees when he took office in January from previous Democrat Natalie Tennant. Before Ireland took office in 2005, Edgar “Hike” Heiskell was the last elected Republican in 1972. He did not finish his term and was replaced by James McCartney, who served until 1976.
Warner and Tennant staged a vicious campaign, exchanging attack ads and comments. Eventually, Warner triumphed over Tennant by a 12,000-vote margin in November 2016.
Before taking office, Warner notified Tennant that the 16 workers would not be retained when he assumed office on January 16.
At the time, Tennant told The (Charleston) Gazette-Mail: “This is unprecedented that a new administration would come in and fire 16 people without giving the employees an opportunity to defend their jobs or ask to be moved in a different position or take a pay cut. By losing a third of the employees in the office, you are losing decades of competent, professional individuals with experience, knowledge and excellent customer service.”
Then-incoming Warner Communications Director Mike Queen said the move was made in anticipation of budget cuts. Nevertheless, published reports and the suit allege he has more employees than Tennant did. In January, Queen told reporters the number of full-time employees would be cut from 60 to 56.
Beside top aides, who were clearly identified with Tennant, others losing their jobs included Chief Information Officer Beth Ann Surber, Elections Division Manager Layna Brown, Elections Specialists Tammy Roberts and Cristie Hamilton, Head Receptionist Nancy Harrison; and Legislative Liaison Dave Nichols.
Mike Queen, who will be communications director in the Warner administration, said Tuesday the terminations are needed to deal with anticipated budget cuts.
Of further interest, the lawsuit filed this week lists current Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango as co-counsel with Mark Atkinson. Salango, a Democrat, was appointed to replace former Commissioner David Hardy, when Hardy resigned to become state finance secretary under Governor Jim Justice. Observers believe Salango will run to complete Hardy’s term next year.
The suit contends that political firings are unconstitutional and that Warner’s actions are a throwback to the old “spoils system” in which elected officials rewarded their inner circle with jobs while firing those who did not agree with them politically. The filing says 15 of the fired 16 are registered Democrats while 19 of the 22 new employees are Republicans.
In a February appearance before the State Senate Finance Committee, Warner said the firings “were just what we needed to do to move the office forward.”
Plaintiffs include Business Clerk Rose McCoy; Business and Licensing Specialist Timothy Richards; Hamilton; Roberts; Brown; Nichols; Receptionist Christina Stowers; Business and Licensing Specialist Anna Dean Mathewson; and Public Affairs Specialist Samuel Speciale.
While many point to the fact that Salango’s law practice involves many wrongful discharge cases, most political observers found it odd that he would sue the sitting secretary of state.
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Basically the same gang that has been opposing the state Democrat party leadership for years has been trying to make them the scapegoat in Governor Jim Justice’s decision to switch from Democrat to Republican.
Chairman Belinda Biafore was outspoken in her criticism of Justice and even claimed she had been “duped” by the former Greenbrier Resort CEO. I say she “claimed” that only because I do not think Biafore or anyone else should take the “blame” for Justice’s move – except the governor.
I have always held that an elected official changing politics in mid-term has committed “political fraud.” I used that term in regard to ex-State Senator Daniel Hall a short time ago. If Biafore was, in fact, “duped,” the voters were more so. That would be assuming, of course, that Justice won BECAUSE he was a Democrat.
For all those whining, signing recall petitions online and contemplating lawsuits because of the governor’s change of heart, it wouldn’t be beneficial to have me on that jury. First of all, as I mentioned, the burden to prove that Justice won because he claimed to be a Democrat is dubious at best. Look at the 2016 election. Let me make an understatement here: it wasn’t a good idea to be a Democrat last year.
In fact, Republicans who had been the minority in West Virginia for eight decades, increased control of the state legislature and won all board of public works positions except governor and treasurer.
Incumbent and newcomer Democrats did not do well in 2016. So, if Justice was really “always a Republican” as some claim, why did he decide to switch to the unpopular party in order to run for governor?
I know. I know. Because the GOP establishment had promised the gubernatorial nomination to then-State Senate President Bill Cole. Really? And that would have made a difference to Justice, the most unorthodox politician the Mountain State has ever seen? Come on now. If he wanted, he would have filed as a Republican, defeated Cole and then rode the Trump landslide to a 65 percent victory for governor. Wake up, folks!
Greenbrier County Democrat Chair Paul Moya woke up the sleeping “let’s get Joe Manchin, Belinda Biafore, Larry Puccio” crowd by posting on Facebook that he is resigning. He declared (spelling, punctuation and capitalization errors corrected so one can at least partially understand what he is saying), “I do hereby resign … not because the Democratic party left me (that’s a lame ass excuse) but because the state Democratic party leadership has left those of us in the field, chairman and committee members, hanging.”
He raved a bit more and who knows if he has – or will – resign but also injected a note to State Senator Richard Ojeda of Logan: “the state party has already picked the primary winner in the WV 03. That will be Mayor (Steve) Williams of Huntington.”
I suspect all the outrage will quickly expire and we will have a New World Order in which Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael now sees all the positive characteristics of Governor Justice while the minority leader adopts the “tax-evading, country bumpkin” description for the governor.
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Former Senate President Jeff Kessler took to cyberspace to offer vengeful comments about Justice. He appeared to think Justice “tricked” voters to his spot on the ticket in 2016. One should point out that Justice’s “trickery” must have worked well because he defeated Kessler, one of his opponents in the gubernatorial race, by better than two-to-one.
Sour grapes look good on Kessler, all purple and such.
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On the subject of Senator Ojeda, numerous supporters of his as well as Republican officials, have told me he has said to them in the past, “I really am a Republican but I can’t get elected that way.”
Ironic then that the “open, transparent, accountable” senator went on another of his Facebook tirades criticizing Justice. Like me, he called it “voter fraud.” Still, Ojeda apparently longs to be a Republican and steadfastly refuses to explain his real estate homestead exemption.