CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s Republican Party has a situation.
The state party chairwoman has removed a controversial county chairman from his elected position after a public war of words.
Four lawyers who provided advice to the party have been dismissed as that dispute came to a head.
A Republican National Committee Chairwoman from West Virginia says she has not been officially informed of any of this. County-level party leaders from across the state, when asked for insight about the situation, were urged not to comment.
And West Virginia Secretary of State is asking what legal authority state Republican Party Chairwoman Melody Potter used in the first place.
All of this has unfolded over the past week as Potter sent a letter dismissing Wood County Chairman Rob Cornelius from that role.
Potter vs. Cornelius
Cornelius supported Potter in 2018 when she was elected to become party chairwoman. But their relationship has fractured over the past year, mostly over the party’s relationship with Gov. Jim Justice, the businessman who was elected as a Democrat but who switched his registration to the Republican Party a few months into his term.
Cornelius’s “Byrd’s Finger” persona on Twitter has frequently accused Potter of aligning too closely with the governor. Cornelius made a public pitch to move the state GOP’s annual summer meeting from The Greenbrier, owned by Justice, to another site.
Last month, Cornelius made and played a video critical of Potter during a Wood County GOP committee meeting. It included recorded conversations with Potter as well as prominent appearances by Cornelius’s cat.
Potter cited such instances when she sent a letter two days before West Virginia Day to members of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee. Potter wrote that Cornelius’s actions recently came to her attention.
“Mr. Cornelius has called me a ‘disappointing liar’ and has referred to me on twitter and in public appearances as a ‘prostitute’ multiple times,” Potter wrote.
Potter’s memo contends that Cornelius has failed to perform his duties as county chairman and that the party bylaws authorize his removal.
“Our party needs to be unified going into this election year, and we need to end the unnecessary division and focus on doing our jobs and representing the Republican voters of West Virginia with the dignity, character, professionalism and patriotism that they deserve,” she wrote.
Related to the situation, but unstated in the letter, was the dismissal of four lawyers who have been providing guidance to the state Republican Party. Those were attorneys Mark Carter, J. Mark Adkins, Anne Charnock and Richie Heath. The lawyers declined to comment.
Cornelius fired off a response last Thursday, noting that he held an elected position. He also asserted a First Amendment right to say what he’s been saying.
“With this single, ill-advised, poorly written document, Melody Potter attempts to set a dangerous precedent that should strike fear into the hearts of every member of every county Republican Executive Committee.
“This letter clearly states that she believes through an organization’s bylaws, she can punish anybody she wants, in any manner she wants, in any county she wants.”
County party committee members are selected by voters on the ballot during primary elections. Once the county committee is formed, the members take their own vote to choose their chairman or chairwoman.
Any roster changes are reported to the West Virginia Secretary of State, which, in this case, is now in a tricky position.
The Secretary of State’s Office received Potter’s letter about Cornelius and sent back its own letter with questions. The Secretary of State’s Office is asking under what authority she is making these changes.
Potter not only intends to remove Cornelius but also has named Roger Conley as the acting chairman. He owns Conley Manufacturing, where Governor Justice recently appeared to promote his 2020 reelection campaign.
The Secretary of State’s Office says it has no authority to render decisions on intra-party disputes. But the office is supposed to publish updated party rosters.
“However, in this unique instance, it is unclear what authority this Office must rely upon to publicly publish online the updated roster you submitted,” wrote Deak Kersey, general counsel for the Secretary of State.
Normally, an updated roster would be provided by the county chairman. In this case, that position is the one in dispute.
So the Secretary of State’s Office wants Potter to elaborate on her legal standing.
“If you, as the Chairperson of the Republican State Executive Committee, relied on the authority in your bylaws to assume the role of Chair of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee, please indicate as much in writing to the undersigned and the updated roster submitted by you will be published,” Kersey wrote.
“Otherwise, please provide the statutory authority you relied upon that allows our Office to legally accept the updated roster you submitted.”
The bylaw cited by Potter makes reference to the state executive committee and the party chairwoman exercising authority over the rest of the party apparatus, including county committees.
A second portion of the bylaws cited by Potter alludes to time considerations that could give the chairwoman discretion to resolve a controversy on a temporary basis by taking the action she sees as necessary.
Any lingering disputes, according to the bylaws, would move to arbitration.
Kayla Kessinger, who was elected last year to represent West Virginia in the National Republican Committee says no one has officially informed her of the move.
“As of today, I have not yet received any communication from the chairwoman or been a part of any action regarding the attempted removal of the Wood County chairman, Rob Cornelius,” stated Kessinger, who is also a state legislator from Fayette County.
“It is my understanding that Rob was elected to the committee by the Republicans of Wood County and then was unanimously chosen to serve as chairman.”
Kessinger said the legal particulars would need to be directed to Potter or the state Party.
But, she concluded, “As a lifelong Republican, I hope that our party continues to work together as we strive to defend the conservative values we hold dear; life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and our precious freedom of speech.”
The other Republican National Committee member from West Virginia, Larry Pack, declined to comment on the situation.
“I appreciate your important reporting of the news in West Virginia,” Pack wrote to MetroNews. “However I do not wish to (and will not) comment on the issues you raised in your email.”
MetroNews sent an invitation to comment to dozens of county chairs across West Virginia. All are elected to represent local Republican voters.
There was almost no response.
Here is what was asked:
Hello. I am Brad McElhinny, statewide correspondent for West Virginia MetroNews. I am reaching out to you because of your leadership position within the West Virginia Republican Party. I invite you to respond, and I hope to be able to use your response in a story for our website and radio network.
The topic is the recent removal of the Wood County Party Chairman. I am less interested in the personal aspects of that story and more interested in questions about balance of power. Do you think the state chairwoman was within the power of her role to remove the Wood County chairman? Do you think state law reflects that? Do you support the move, or do you have concerns?Setting aside the specific interpersonal conflict of this action, is precedent being set here? Could other county chairs be removed under other circumstances? Do you have any concerns about the naming of an acting chairman in Wood County? My understanding is that the state party has also severed ties with four legal advisors. Does that raise concerns?Thank you. I appreciate your consideration.
That prompted a note sent by T-Anne See, the Cabell County Republican chairwoman, to all of her counterparts.
You may have recently received an email from a reporter requesting comment from you regarding our State Party. I hope that we all agree that abiding by Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment and working to avoid airing disagreements within our Party in newspapers and the media should be our goal. We’re all family and working toward the same goal of electing Republicans. You are in no way obligated to respond to media requests from reporters who seek to see our Party and our candidates lose.
After that, one response came from Aaron Hatfield, the party chairman in Wyoming County.
“As far as this situation goes, I’m sorry but I don’t have a comment,” Hatfield wrote. “I’m not versed enough with the details to give my opinion. I’ll only say that I am not concerned with our state party, and as a whole our goals are the same.”
Ethan Moore, the Republican Party chairman in Monongalia County, offered the only other response.