Justice chooses lobbyist with ties to governor to fill Ojeda seat

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Shortly after three nominations for the vacant 7th Senate District became public Thursday, Gov. Jim Justice selected a lobbyist who represents companies of the governor’s family for the seat.

Paul Hardesty will replace Richard Ojeda in the Senate on Friday upon being sworn in. Ojeda resigned this week to focus on his presidential campaign, adding he could not accomplish his goals while serving in the Legislature.

Hardesty said he does not take the selection lightly.

“My district suffers from many tough issues right now,” he said. “I feel like I am more than adequate to go to Charleston and fight for our people on these issues.”

The 7th Senate District Democratic Executive Committee met Thursday afternoon to choose three nominees among nine applicants for the seat. The body recommended Hardesty, Art Kirkendoll and Harry Keith White; Kirkendoll previously served in the Senate but lost to Ojeda in the 2016 primary election and White served in the House of Delegates from Sept. 1992 to Jan. 2016. He also was chairman of the Bank of Mingo.

Justice had up to five days to announce his decision, but he came forward with his selection of Hardesty less than an hour after the West Virginia Democratic Party made the nominations public.

Hardesty worked on legislative teams of Govs. Bob Wise and Joe Manchin, serving under the governors from 2001 to 2007. He left state government to start his own company, which focused on business development, consulting, marketing and lobbying. He has also served as the president of the Logan County Board of Education since July 2016.

Paul Hardesty

According to the West Virginia Ethics Commission, Hardesty’s clients include The Greenbrier resort, James C. Justice Companies and Southern Coal Corp., which are connected to Justice.

Hardesty said the business closed Thursday, and a new business with no lobbying services would open Friday.

“I will not lobby the Legislature anymore. I’m done,” he said. “A lot of my clients will go and assume other lobbyists and go forward. I just feel like, at this point in my career, it is time for me to give something back to this district. I just feel like it’s what I need to do at this point of time in my life and my career.”

Ojeda said Justice’s choice was nothing more than the governor selecting “his own personal puppet.”

“This wasn’t about trying to put somebody in that position who is going to stand and mirror the values of the Democratic Party,” he told MetroNews. “This is about the governor putting somebody in that position who the governor then can have a thorn be in the sides of the Democrats.”

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said Ojeda asked if he could rescind his resignation letter. Since there is no precedent for such situation, Ojeda would have to approach Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, about the next actions to take.

“Generally, when people resign, that’s finite,” Prezioso said.

“The guy’s heart is in the right place. He truly wants to help the people of southern West Virginia, and he’s caught up in a dilemma of running for president and listening to a lot of people. I just hope he can disaggregate all the information he gets and move forward.”

Yet when asked if he regretted resigning from the Senate, Ojeda he didn’t.

“I resigned so I could fight on another level for the people of West Virginia. Now, am I angered that my seat is being replaced with a lobbyist that works for the governor? I’m disappointed,” he said. “Cheaters never win unless you’re in West Virginia. There, they thrive and they always have.”

The Senate Minority Caucus issued a statement supporting Hardesty, in which Prezioso said he was confident about Hardesty’s potential in office.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, will represent the district with Hardesty.

“I respect Paul and I will work with him to the best of my ability to serve the 7th Senate District,” he said. “It’s an area that needs a lot of work. We’ve lost up to 40 percent of our economy, and it’s no time for divisive politics.”

Hardesty will serve on the Agriculture and Rural Development, Interstate Cooperation, Judiciary, Military and Natural Resources committees. He will take office at 10:30 a.m.

MetroNews’ Brad McElhinny contributed to this story.

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