The roster of Democrats in the state Senate could be changing significantly with the expected departures of John Unger and William Ihlenfeld.
Unger, a longtime senator serving a district that crosses Berkeley and Jefferson counties, has been appointed for a magistrate’s position in Berkeley.
Ihlenfeld, a Wheeling resident who represents Northern Panhandle counties, was nominated by the Biden Administration to return to the top federal prosecutor’s job in northern West Virginia.
Democrats are deeply in the minority in the state Senate with 11 of the 34 members. If Unger or Ihlenfeld would resign before their terms end, Gov. Jim Justice’s administration would choose Democratic replacements based on recommendations from local party committees.
Unger has served since 1998 and most recently won re-election in 2018. He would have been on the ballot again next year.
Unger was appointed by Berkeley Chief Judge Mike Lorensen to an upcoming vacancy created by the resignation of Magistrate Richard Stephens, who was appointed to a family court position. Stephens leaves the court Aug 20.
Unger says he was contacted by Judge Lorensen about the position. “I didn’t ask him or call him,” he told MetroNews.
Unger, who is a minister, said he thought about it and prayed on it and asked himself, “Where can I be the most effective and do the most good for the most people?”
Unger has worked with the judicial system on the drug issue and believes he can be helpful on that issue at the magistrate level. “This where the people are. The magistrate court is the people’s court.”
Unger said he has grown weary of partisan politics and that in the state Senate he felt “more and more that I was being removed from helping people.”
Ihlenfeld was elected in 2018, defeating then-Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, and his term would end next year. He served as the U.S. Attorney for Northern West Virginia during the Obama administration and now would return to that role subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate, which has a Democratic majority.
Ihlenfeld said he would serve in the Senate until the confirmation process is complete. “If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, I’ll resign. Until then I’ll continue to serve in the state Senate,” he said.
State Senate Majority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, echoed that he would anticipate Ihlenfeld serving until being confirmed.
“While we are sad to lose him as a member of the state Senate, our loss is a gain for the state of West Virginia and the American people,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin added, “Bill will continue to serve in the West Virginia Senate during the U.S. Senate confirmation process. That process is likely to take several months.”
Ihlenfeld’s nomination for the U.S. prosecutor’s position has been anticipated for some time. Less was known leading up to Unger’s appointment as magistrate, so his legislative colleagues were still learning more about his likely departure.
“John always says he will spend his time where he can do the most good,” Baldwin said. “As magistrate, John can contribute his work on substance abuse recovery in a county that has been ravaged by overdoses. He is uniquely qualified due to his familiarity with the law and substance abuse crisis in West Virginia.
“He will be sorely missed in the Senate due to his knowledge of parliamentary procedure, advocacy for public education, his deep intellect and his pastoral heart. Our loss is the gain of Berkeley County residents.”
Hoppy Kercheval contributed to this story.