CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The ‘no confidence’ vote that shook West Virginia politics came as a shock.
“There were a few committee members who created and brought up this motion in new business. I did not have it on the agenda because I was not consulted on it,” said Kanawha County Republican Executive Committee Chairwoman Tresa Howell.
Committee members were voting on a resolution expressing no confidence in Gov. Jim Justice.
What’s not yet clear — as more counties discuss whether to consider similar resolutions — is whether there’s going to be any awe.
Howell no longer seems upset. She’s intrigued about what will happen next.
“The beauty of this is that it shows that the Republicans have the capability of debate and not falling in line with the status quo as the Democrats continue to do,” Howell said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
Kanawha County GOP Executive Committee Chair, Tresa Howell, joins @HoppyKercheval to discuss her committee’s vote of no-confidence about @WVGovernor. WATCH: https://t.co/wkudfIAoe1 pic.twitter.com/FfBV6nbeYx
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) April 5, 2019
Republican executive committees across the state are now talking about Kanawha’s “no confidence” vote. The topic is on agendas next week for committees in Harrison, Fayette and Upshur counties.
Justice is an incumbent who has already declared his intention to run for re-election in 2020. But he was elected governor as a Democrat and switched his party registration to Republican a few months into his first year in office.
“With lots of prayers and lots of thoughts, today I tell you as West Virginians I can’t help you any more being a Democratic governor,” Justice said as he announced his switch.
The Kanawha Republican resolution contends Justice’s positions contradict the party’s platform.
The resolution criticizes Justice’s positions on education — including his stated opposition to charter schools and other “broad education reforms.” It also takes issue with his comments on right-to-work legislation and expresses concerns about the state’s current road maintenance challenges.
*RESOLVED,” it states, “the Kanawha County, West Virginia, Republican Executive Committee votes to express no confidence in the current Governor of West Virginia, James Justice.”
Overwhelming vote, three new members
In executive session, the Kanawha executive committee aired out positions on the “no confidence” resolution.
“It was a very heated debate,” Howell said, “but I’m very proud they were able to listen to each other and debate it back and forth and take a vote.”
The Kanawha vote was 19-4 with three abstaining.
“There was great support for this resolution,” Howell said.
Three new members who were elected that night participated in the vote. One was Katherine Larese, a Belle resident.
Another was Greg Thomas, a Republican consultant who has worked recently with the state Senate on policy issues, including possible changes to the state’s education system.
Thomas, who declined to comment for this story, had earlier met with some of the longstanding members of the executive committee. Hearing their discontent, he encouraged them to make a bold move.
The third of the new board members was Anne Lieberman, a former sergeant at arms for the House of Delegates.
Lieberman resigned suddenly this past legislative session after exchanging words with Democratic delegates over a poster connecting Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somali-born Muslim, with the 9-11 attacks.
Lieberman was looking for a way to stay involved and felt free to participate directly in politics. She was nominated to an executive committee seat that had been open and found herself in a vote about the governor’s performance.
“I knew about it, but I didn’t realize it would be such a big deal,” Lieberman said in a Friday telephone interview. “It seemed like such a no-brainer to me.”
Lieberman said she was aware of ongoing frustration that Republicans in West Virginia have a trifecta — control of the Governor’s Office, the Senate and the House — but feel they have few policy victories to show for it.
“Pretty unusual to have a Republican governor, Republican majorities in both houses, and we’re not getting Republican stuff,” she said. “Not as much as we feel we should be anyway.”
Like others, Lieberman doesn’t like Justice’s lack of support for education programs that would allow public funds to follow students to whatever schooling their families choose, whether that’s traditional public school, charter schools, faith-based schools or homeschooling.
“Come on, a couple of charter schools?” Lieberman said. “Really.”
“No confidence” resolutions may put some pressure on the governor, who has already called a special session for changes to West Virginia’s education system. The Governor’s Office possesses great power over the bills that are introduced for a special session.
“This is our chance to influence that, what happens there, so that both he and Republican legislators know that there’s discontent out in the grass roots,” Lieberman said.
But at first, Lieberman thought the goals of the resolution weren’t quite so ambitious.
“I think the goal was simply to run it up the flagpole in the committee and see what the support was or wasn’t,” she said. “Now maybe there’s a bigger goal of seeing if there’s more widespread dissatisfaction.”
County executive committees across the state are talking about the “no confidence” issue.
That doesn’t mean they all like it.
State Republican Party Chairwoman Melody Potter has declined to say anything but a single phrase.
“Reagan’s 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of fellow Republicans.”
One of her lieutenants, state executive board member Paul Hartling, described a rebel faction.
“There is a small group of Governor Justice haters that will and are doing all they can to get him to resign. In doing so this small group hurts our party and makes it look like we are divided. Except for them, we are united.”
In a followup email, Hartling wanted to make it clear that comment was not aimed at the Kanawha Republican Executive Committee but instead at a small group of others he believes are stirring up the current unrest.
“That small group is led by the chairman of the Wood County committee and a few others not in that committee.”
Rob Cornelius says he did not do this
The chairman of the Wood County Executive Committee is Rob Cornelius. He has often worked with Greg Thomas, usually for coal boss and candidate Don Blankenship.
Cornelius did opposition work against Justice prior to the 2016 election, and he has — very clearly — not changed his tune about Justice even after the party switch.
“It’s our current elected officials that have the most to lose from having a bad teammate,” Cornelius said Friday.
“Trump loves education reform, but the governor won’t follow him on that. Justice makes it hard to run conservative bills, and when those fail constituents ask why a Republican-dominated government can’t deliver what we promised. All Republicans suffer, conservative voters are demoralized and the GOP brand loses trust.”
Last June, Wood County’s Republican executive committee approved a resolution calling for Justice’s impeachment. And Cornelius has offered resolutions critical of Justice at state Republican Party events.
But he says he is not directly behind what’s happening now.
“I’m not aggressively pushing anyone to do anything. Our people need to be able to trust the state party and trust the governor and if they don’t I’m not surprised they’re reacting this way.”
The Wood County executive committee’s next scheduled meeting is in May. Cornelius says there’s no urgency to gather before that.
Meanwhile, Cornelius is watching what happens in the other counties. He says some have reached out to him about Wood County’s impeachment resolution from last summer.
He says county leaders are now emboldened.
“You can’t expect county chairs and people with this party apologize for someone who won’t come to work and won’t do conservative things,” he said.
More votes ahead
Fayette County’s Republican executive committee, like many others, doesn’t meet that often. It hadn’t met since the election last fall.
Its next meeting just happened to be this Monday.
Fayette Executive Committee Chairman Austin Haynes says one of the committee’s members came to him and said, “Well, that’s something we need to talk about.”
So now the “no confidence” resolution is on the agenda. Haynes doesn’t think it has momentum to pass, but it’s in the conversation and now it has to be aired out.
“There have always been some concerns,” Haynes said. “He ran as a Democrat, got elected as a Democrat and then he switched parties. So I think those concerns play a little bit of a role.”
Haynes says no political officeholder, including the governor, can be expected to fully agree with the platform. Haynes, for example, wasn’t wild about the education bill that was considered during the past legislative session.
He suggests the current debate may begin and end with a small band of dissatisfied Republicans.
“I think within both parties, you always have these little factions and sometimes the little factions get their ways and I think this was started by, you know, maybe it was a group that didn’t particularly like what the governor had to say about the education reform,” Haynes said.
“I do see it as maybe putting some pressure on the governor. I’ve known the governor long enough to know he’s going to remain Jim Justice. I don’t think anything is going to change.”