BELLE, W.Va. — For more than 20 years, Frank Larese did the basics to help Republicans get elected. He went to meetings, raised money, held signs along highways and dialed numbers for phone banks.
“I bet I’ve spent — it’s hard to say how long I’ve spent on the telephone with candidate call lists,” said Larese, 73, of Belle.
Every four years, Larese put down a filing fee and got his name way, way down the ballot. Voters in about eight precincts continued to send him to serve on the Kanawha GOP Executive Committee.
This month, it seems, that came to an end.
Larese was among a dozen members removed from the Kanawha County GOP Executive Committee because of their attendance.
Some of those served notice that they intend to sue over their removal, saying the action violates state election law and the committee’s own bylaws.
Those fighting their removal include Larese, Thomas Collins of Cross Lanes, Rich Greathouse of Clendenin, Barbara Hackworth of Cedar Grove, Candace Joseph of Charleston, Bree Lemmon of Cross Lanes and Nancy McClanahan of Charleston.
Members of the Kanawha GOP Executive Committee also filed written requests for arbitration to consider the reinstatement of those who were removed.
Some of the others who were removed are not fighting it.
The removal happened in the middle of a broader dispute over whether Chairwoman Tresa Howell should step aside.
And that happened during an even broader ongoing divide that developed earlier this spring when members of the Kanawha GOP Executive Committee, including Larese, voted to express “no confidence” in Gov. Jim Justice.
Before a monthly meeting July 9 as these issues came to a head, Howell sent certified letters to the dozen committee members who were being removed and also named six new members.
“We did not make quorum two times in six months,” Howell said when pressed by those who attended the meeting. “It’s detrimental to the committee because you can’t approve anything. So attendance is greatly important.
“As for the bylaws, you all are required to attend at least 50 percent. Within a calendar year you all are required to attend at least 50 percent.”
Larese was beside himself.
“I’ve been on this committee for about 24 years. I’ve done everything. Sign waving on street corners. Spaghetti dinners. I’ve walked for hours and hours at telephone banks,” he stood and said that night.
“I’ll be damned if you’re going to throw me off.”
Minutes from the past six months provided by the committee secretary showed that Larese missed the first three meetings of this year, made it to the next two and then missed again in June. He was back for July when it all blew up.
Other members who attended this month’s meeting also had many questions.
Some asked why the new members were just mentioned but were not formally introduced or subject to a vote to approve them.
Others asked to see the minutes from the prior six months and were dissatisfied by lack of response.
George Metz, a local attorney who described himself as a GOP committee member for a decade, asked for an up or down vote on his removal that evening.
He was told a motion needed to be made in the “new business” portion of the meeting, and then that never happened.
By the end of the meeting, with a dozen members off the committee and six new ones on, an upcoming special meeting to begin removing Howell as chair was canceled.
The reason was that those who wanted to remove her hadn’t followed the proper procedure in notifying members of the committee.
MetroNews sent Howell a set of questions meant to elicit more clarification. In recent weeks, she has not been responding to media requests for comment.
State Party Chairwoman Melody Potter said during an appearance on MetroNews’ “Talkline” this week that Howell is doing a good job and that she’s been attacked by a small group out to be disruptive.
“Tresa Howell is doing an excellent job,” Potter said.
“And some of the same people who are trying to cause me problems — because they have an interest in making money off people who run for public office — they have been trying to do the same thing to Tresa Howell, who has done nothing to deserve what she’s been getting.”
Potter didn’t name names but was probably referring to Greg Thomas, who runs Republican campaigns and who joined the Kanawha GOP Executive Committee a few months ago. Thomas has not been removed.
She also made reference to what’s been happening in Wood County.
Last month, Potter sent a letter to remove Wood County Executive Committee Chairman Rob Cornelius, saying he has been insulting and detrimental to the party structure at the state and local levels.
She also named a temporary chairman, Roger Conley, plus five more new members.
Those six joined five members already on the committee to sign a letter supporting the removal of Cornelius.
This week,most of the members of the reconstituted committee voted to approve Conley to serve out the term until 2022
Wood County Commission President Blair Couch, a Republican, says some committee members are worried that they’ll be removed if they go against the grain.
“When members of the committee contact me and ask if they will be removed for speaking out, I have no answer,” Couch said.
In Kanawha County, Larese says the discord started in April when 19 members spoke out with a vote of “no confidence” in the governor.
Larese supported that vote and still does. He served as head doorkeeper for the House of Delegates until this year and was able to judge Justice up close.
“I have observed his actions,” Larese said. “How much does he stay at the Capitol? How long is he here? There were legislators who needed to talk to him and he wouldn’t be around. I saw it with my own eyes.”
Larese is still frustrated by being removed from the Kanawha County GOP Executive Committee, but he isn’t sure he wants to go back.
“I enjoyed it, but there would have to be a lot of changes,” he said.
When he first joined in the 1990s, he had been a registered Democrat but kept voting Republican. A friend told him about an opening on the executive committee, and Larese changed his registration and accepted an appointment.
“Why did I do it? Just to get involved, to do something,” he said. “I just knew the county probably needed a new direction. If I could be a part of it, I would.”
After that, he put his name on the ballot every four years. He rarely had competition, but he paid the fee and put his name out there.
His removal letter came by way of certified mail. Some mistake meant it wound up at the Post Office a few days after the committee meeting. He finally got his hands on it Monday but didn’t open it right away.
He said the message was, “We don’t need you any more.”