CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The fractures in West Virginia’s Republican Party are now dividing the Kanawha County Republican Executive Committee.
“It’s a hot mess,” said Anne Lieberman, one of the committee members.
Members of the committee sent a letter in mid-June to Kanawha Chairwoman Tresa Howell, asking her to resign.
“We appreciate and thank you for your service to the KCREC, but feel strongly that the Committee has not been, and is not now, functioning as well as it could and should be,” they wrote.
Those who signed include Ryan Lemmon, Bree Lemmon, Larry Medley, Frank Larese, Thorney Lieberman, Katherine Larese, Anne Lieberman, Brian Mace, Janet O’Farrell, Carolyn Stricklen, Danny Stricklen, Nancy Kogoy, John Kogoy, Fred Joseph, Candace Joseph and Greg Thomas.
The Secretary of State’s Office lists 40 total members of the Kanawha GOP Executive Committee.
Reached this afternoon, Howell said those who signed the letter represent the core who supported an April vote of no confidence of Gov. Jim Justice. Three were new to the committee at that point.
“The dividing line is caused by people who are wanting control,” she said. “They passed this resolution against the governor.”
Howell characterized the committee as active, raising money, planning events to support Republican causes and driving registration.
But she contended that some of those who signed the registration letter have not helped with those events or even regularly attended recent meetings.
“Even with all the things we’ve had to deal with with undermining or not attending meetings,” Howell said, “we’re still winning.”
On the eve of a regularly-scheduled board meeting, which would have been today, committee officials sent notification of a week’s delay, citing the Fourth of July holiday and the possibility of limited attendance.
The resignation request likely would have come to a head tonight. Instead, it will simmer for a week.
Howell said one of the reasons was family that had come to visit her from out of state. She said others were in similar positions, wanting to enjoy holiday family time, and that a week’s delay isn’t unusual.
So she hasn’t officially responded to the resignation request. But when it comes down to it, she said, continuing is worthwhile.
“It’s worth it because I’m involved 100 percent because of the people in our state. I am not involved in it because of my own personal gain. And I’m not a quitter,” she said.
“If people want to see a difference in their communities, see a difference in their state you have to step up and help. You have to be able to eliminate those Democratic policies that have continued to fail us.”
Yet this is just the latest flash point in divisions within West Virginia’s dominant political party.
Late last month, state party Chairwoman Melody Potter sent a letter removing Wood County Executive Committee Chairman Rob Cornelius from that elected office.
Cornelius has been openly critical of the party’s relationship with incumbent Governor Justice, who was elected as a Democrat but then changed his registration to Republican.
“Mr. Cornelius has engaged in extensive smear campaign against both myself and the West Virginia Republican Party,” Potter wrote.
Potter followed up by naming six new members of the Wood County executive committee. They joined five current members in signing a letter backing her position. The current roster lists 19 members overall.
Lieberman says the county situations might not be directly connected, but there’s definitely a link of diminishing trust. She referred to Potter’s recent action.
“The connection now is that people on the committee are afraid she is going to do the same thing to us and eliminate anybody who doesn’t agree with her or respects her or speaks in some way that offends her,” Lieberman said.
“Now people are paranoid and they don’t know what’s going to happen and nobody is talking with anyone honestly and openly.”
Lieberman is a former House of Delegates sergeant at arms who resigned after getting into a heated exchange with Democratic delegates over a poster that took issue with Muslim culture on GOP Day at the Legislature. Potter also took heat for allowing the poster to be displayed.
Lieberman joined the Kanawha County Republican Executive Committee at the same time it became the first of several a few months ago to take a vote of no confidence in Governor Justice.
“I just joined when the trouble started,” she said.
Greg Thomas, who runs Republican campaigns around the state, blasted both Howell and Potter. Thomas has often cooperated with Cornelius, particularly on political efforts representing former coal executive Don Blankenship.
Thomas said the Kanawha committee needs a change from Howell.
“She is not very effective. They’re not raising any money. It’s for the same reasons that Melody isn’t. They’re just in over their head,” Thomas said in a telephone interview. “They don’t listen to the will of the committee. You’re the chair of a committee, you have to listen to your members.”
He added, “There is an uprising among the membership of the committee all over the state. They’re ineffective and it’s the worst leadership we’ve had in decades.”
Lieberman said trust has eroded among members of the Kanawha committee since the no confidence vote on Justice. She described a series of events that seemed small but added up.
“I think the theme is pretty much Mrs. Howell is doing Melody’s instruction and Melody is doing what the governor wants. It’s a whole chain. I think that’s where the divergence started, is with the resolution of no confidence.”
The Facebook event for the rescheduled meeting included some names of people who haven’t been on the committee previously, Lieberman said. That made her wonder if there will be a roster change within the next week.
“That made us feel like maybe they’re being appointed by the state chair and maybe the meeting was postponed by the state chair and have the votes ot overwhelm the movement to remove her,” Lieberman said. “It just looks unusual.
“Is this the way of the future that if you don’t play ball that you are silenced? I think that’s a reasonable assumption.”
On the edge of the 2020 election, Lieberman said, the party should be gearing up instead of resolving internal conflicts.
“There are a lot of things we should be doing getting ready for a major election,” she said. “And we’re dysfunctional, the largest county.”
Howell begs to differ.
“We are financially sound, we have a message and we’re ready to go for 2020,” she said. “For them to say we’re not being effective, it’s a lie. I hate that. It’s a lie.”