WHEELING - Delegate Ryan Ferns' decision to switch parties and run for the West Virginia Senate next year came just weeks after he indicated to House leadership he planned to remain a Democrat, according to Speaker Tim Miley.
Ferns filed papers Monday officially switching his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. He followed by announcing plans to challenge state Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Wheeling, for the First District Senate seat next year.
In response to Ferns' announcement, Miley - who received the support of every House Democrat in the June vote for speaker except Ferns, who instead backed Kanawha County Republican Tim Armstead - recalled a recent conversation he had with Ferns, House Majority Leader Harry Keith White, D-Mingo and Delegate Doug Skaff Jr., D-Kanawha. During that conversation, he said, Ferns was asked directly whether he planned to switch parties and replied he did not.
"In fact, he said that while he didn't agree with everything for which the Democratic Party stood, he stated he would never become a Republican for reasons that I should not repeat publicly," Miley, D-Harrison, said Monday. "Obviously I'm disappointed in Delegate Ferns' decision today, but in politics some people say one thing and do another. Delegate Ferns has now done this on multiple occasions."
Ferns acknowledged Monday he did indicate his intent to remain a Democrat to Miley during what he termed a "very informal" conversation, but denied stating unequivocally that he would "never" switch parties.
"At that point, I did not have any intention to switch, and I just told them that. ... (Miley) must have misunderstood me," Ferns said. "It's been no secret that I've often worked across party lines."
Ferns declined to comment on what he said that he believes Miley could have misconstrued, and added he and Miley had a "very cordial" conversation Monday.
Local and state Democrat Party leaders expressed little surprise Monday at Ferns' decision.
"This comes as no surprise to me because many Democrats in his district believe that he has been an ineffective delegate. They feel he would not be successful in getting through the Democratic primary this time," said West Virginia Democrat Party Chairman Larry Puccio. "Therefore, it appears Ryan has taken this opportunity as a way out."
Ohio County Democrat Party Co-Chairman John Saunders said Ferns "struggled within our party" and left himself vulnerable by voting against Miley for speaker.
Ferns said his party switch was unrelated to controversy over his speaker vote, which he said had more to do with frustration over outside lobbyists attempting to influence the vote than with Miley himself.
"I have a lot of respect for Tim Miley as a delegate and as speaker," Ferns said.
Rather, Ferns said his switch was prompted by opposition within his own party to his attempts to work with Republicans, and his recognition over the last few weeks of "a strong need for a conservative candidate in the Senate race."
Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, speaker pro temp and a 13-year veteran of the House, believes Ferns - first elected to the House in 2010 at the age of 27 - may have been expecting too much too soon.
"It's just like any job. It takes a little time to get established. ... It's a give-and-take world, and it doesn't happen overnight," Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, said, adding he's had a good relationship with Ferns and wishes him the best moving forward.
West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas on Monday welcomed Ferns into the GOP's ranks.
"We know that the Republican Party in West Virginia is growing in numbers, and today increased by one more. Ryan's conservative values are exactly what we need moving forward," Lucas said.
Saunders, meanwhile, is looking forward to a showdown between Ferns and Fitzsimmons, who he called a "young, bright and truthful" candidate.
"As I always say, the voters are going to decide," he said.
Fitzsimmons, who also is co-chairman of the Ohio County Democrat Party, did not return a call seeking comment.
Regarding the race for Ferns' House seat in 2014, Saunders expects a wide open contest with plenty of candidates who may be emboldened by the lack of an entrenched incumbent to challenge.
"I think you'll see a lot of interest in the next few weeks. ... I think a lot of people who normally wouldn't be interested will be interested because it's an open seat," Saunders said.
Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, occupies the other House seat in Ohio County.