CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of the biggest county Republican committee in the state are headed for a collision.
Sixteen members of the Kanawha County Executive Committee are calling for a special meeting to begin the removal process of the chairwoman.
At the same time, Chairwoman Tresa Howell has sent out letters removing members of the committee, citing spotty records of attending meetings over the past six months.
Rank-and-file members of the Kanawha executive committee say about a dozen people are receiving removal letters. Several are among those who oppose Howell continuing as chairwoman.
“I heard I’m on the list,” said Kanawha executive committee member Candace Joseph. “If they take enough people off the committee, then they pretty much have it the way they want it.”
Joseph suspects members are being removed from the committee as a way to head off the effort to remove the chairwoman.
“I think the only thing left to happen would be to eliminate a quorum. If they eliminate them from the committee they would have maybe the opportunity to put others on,” Joseph said. “I think it’s so they can pass the things they want without a difference of opinion.”
This conflict goes back months, starting with a vote of no confidence in Gov. Jim Justice that the committee took in April. Justice is the incumbent Republican governor, but he was first elected as a Democrat.
Conflict over the party’s view of Justice has taken several forms since then.
Members of the Republican majority in the state Senate clashed with Justice — particularly over aspects of an omnibus education bill — with Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair at one point saying the governor should resign.
Then state Republican Party Chairwoman Melody Potter sent a letter removing Wood County GOP Executive Committee Rob Cornelius, citing the style and frequency of Cornelius’s criticism of the party’s relationship with Justice.
Potter named a half-dozen new members of the Wood County GOP Executive Committee who then joined five more in a letter of support for her removal of Cornelius.
Now those same divides have spilled out in Kanawha County.
The 16 members who want to remove Howell have been critical of her effectiveness and view her as too protective of Potter and Justice.
Howell wasn’t immediately available to comment for this story. Over the past week, she has defended her leadership, saying the committee has been active. But she acknowledged that dealing with the divisions has been a challenge.
“I just think something has to be done because there’s such turmoil,” said Joseph, who was one of the 16 names on the letter to start the removal of Howell.
Another who signed that letter was Ryan Lemmon.
His wife, Bree, was another. She received a letter removing her from the committee.
“It’s blatantly trying to stack the committee,” Ryan Lemmon said.
Lemmon, who plans a run for House of Delegates, says he got involved with the committee because he wanted to play an active role in supporting the party. He said he’s tried to talk with others who are fighting but without much success.
“So what are we left with? We’re left with a bunch of people fighting among ourselves with no leadership,” he said.
The removal letter his wife received makes reference to missing more than 50 percent of meetings from Jan. 1 to June 30.
Bylaws on the Kanawha GOP website judge attendance based on a year:
“If a voting member of the Committee (elected, appointed, voting or associate) fails without a reasonable or just cause to attend at least 50% of the regular and special meetings called within a calendar year, they shall forfeit any and all rights and privileges as a member of the Committee.”
Lemmon said to take less than a year into consideration doesn’t make sense.
“It is an attempt to try to sway some of the votes,” Lemmon said.
Longtime committee member Frank Larese was also expecting to receive a removal letter.
“And I’ve missed very few meetings in the last 18 years or so,” said Larese, a former doorkeeper for the House of Delegates. “The times I’ve missed probably wouldn’t amount to a half dozen.”
Over those years, he said, those with thin attendance were often overlooked.
“Just let ‘em slide,” he said.
Larese questioned whether members who were elected by the public like he was can be removed by a letter from the chairwoman.
“Took my time and my dollars and put my name on the ballot, and the good people of Belle elected me to this position,” he said. “I’m going to stay on it until the good people of Belle un-elect me.”
The next regular meeting of the Kanawha GOP Executive Committee is Tuesday.
Larese said he’ll be there.
“Well, certainly I’m going. Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said. “And I have a good excuse not to go, but I’m going.”