GOP rift raises concerns
PARKERSBURG — Months before the start of the candidate filing period for the May 2020 primary, fractures among state and county Republican leaders have begun to appear, all centered around Gov. Jim Justice, a Democrat who switched to Republican.
Nowhere have these fractures been more evident than in Wood County where the Republican Party chairman — an outspoken critic of Justice and anyone perceived to be supportive of the embattled governor — was removed.
Now with legal battles on the horizon, infighting among other Republicans and the state party’s summer meeting next month at Justice’s Greenbrier Resort, it remains to be seen how the party will reunify after May once it knows who its nominees will be.
BY THE BOOK
Last week, Rob Cornelius, elected for a second term as chairman of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee in July 2018, announced his intent to take the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office to court to enforce state code by accepting his list of county party members.
The announcement, setting in motion a 30-day window before he can file suit, came after Melody Potter, chairwoman of the West Virginia Republican Executive Committee, removed Cornelius as the chairman of the county party and removed him from the committee.
Cornelius was re-elected to the county committee during the May 2018 primary by Republicans and non-affiliated voters in North Parkersburg.
“We will pursue every action required to restore the legal membership of this committee, and the full civil rights of every member or voter wronged in this illegitimate process,” Cornelius said. “I have never seen so many, so willing to break the law to deny this community the rights guaranteed in the Constitution.
Potter first informed the county committee June 18 that Cornelius was no longer on the committee. Potter accused Cornelius of committing acts of disunity in the party, conducting a smear campaign against her and harassment through social media, and for not managing the county party. Cornelius appealed Potter’s decision, but in a letter dated July 10 Potter rejected the appeal.
“Your removal is and was what is best for the West Virginia Republican Party and the Wood County Republican Party,” Potter wrote. “Your removal was necessary and done in the best interest of the Republican Party.”
West Virginia Code 3-1-9 lays out how party executive committees should be organized, including how they handle filling vacancies. That code section doesn’t specifically address removal of committee members, though State Code 6-6-7 does lay out a process for removing county elected officials through a petition process and a three-judge panel.
Code requires committee chairs to submit updated lists of committee members to the Secretary of State’s Office and empowers the chairs to appoint new committee members if the committee hasn’t already done so within 60 days of a vacancy.
Executive committees govern themselves through party rules or bylaws. The state Republican Party’s bylaws only address removing a state committee member if they endorse, support or donate to a Democratic candidate.
The bylaws for the Wood County Republican Executive Committee require it to adhere to Robert’s Rules of Order that require an investigative committee to be convened, for charges to be brought, and for trial by the committee before any member is removed. Cornelius said none of this was done and still considers himself a member and chairman of the county committee.
“There has been no removal, in the legal sense. Until a court settles this and related matters, this is a status quo ante situation,” Cornelius said. “I have been denied all due process rights, were this even a legitimate attempt at a legal removal under W.Va. Code 6-6-7 or Robert’s Rules of Order as specified in the Wood County Republican bylaws.”
Cornelius sees his removal as retribution for his public stance on Justice. Cornelius has been vocal in criticizing Justice as not a real Republican (Justice won election as Democrat and switched to Republican in August 2017).
Cornelius accuses Justice of not following the state Constitution by refusing to live in Charleston as required, of not being a supporter of the state Republican Party platform when it comes to issues of right-to-work and school choice and for Justice’s business practices that have resulted in multiple state and federal lawsuits and an ongoing Department of Justice investigation.
Potter, who became state party chairwoman after former chairman Conrad Lucas resigned to run for Congress, had the backing of Cornelius. Their relationship soured after Potter started showing more support for Justice, including attending a press conference last summer where Justice announced a deal with the State Tax Department settling debts owed by his companies, and campaign donations from Justice to the state party.
Cornelius took to social media, calling Potter a “prostitute” for taking Justice’s campaign money and accusing her of selling the party to the governor. Cornelius said his removal was because he has been vocal in speaking out against Justice and Potter’s leadership.
“This action is clearly retribution, under color of government authority, for my free speech under our First Amendment. Period,” Cornelius said. “Melody Potter doesn’t think that she has to follow West Virginia code or our party’s bylaws, and that she is the party, not our thousands of members statewide. It’s unsurprising her disrespect for law based on how much time she spends at the feet of the corrupt Jim Justice.”
Two members of the Wood County committee, one re-elected in 2018 and the other appointed by Potter, deny he was removed for his vocal stance against the governor.
Treasurer Gladys Lemley cites a litany of reasons for why Cornelius needed to go, including not appointing members to vacant positions and sub-committees, not removing frequently absent committee members and issues setting up picnics, party headquarters and fundraisers.
But for Lemley, Cornelius’ attacks on Potter were the last straw. On March 19, she tried to make a motion to call a special meeting of the committee for April 16 with the goal of investigating Cornelius. Only Cornelius — as chairman — can call a special meeting unless 15 members of the committee sign on to calling a special meeting. The committee at the time only had 14 members.
During a May meeting, Lemley said Cornelius played a video that included a conversation between Potter and Cornelius where Potter was critical of Justice. Lemley again raised issues with Cornelius’ leadership and his attacks on Potter and made a motion to remove him from his position. The vote failed 5-7, needing a two-thirds majority to initiate an investigation.
“I wanted to speak to this, and I was called out of order and told to sit down and be quiet or (Cornelius) was going to call the sheriff and have me removed from the meeting,” Lemley said.
As part of her prepared statement at that meeting, Lemley cited Cornelius’ social media attacks on Potter as a reason to remove him as chairman.
“It was requested that we be strong and partner with the WVGOP Executive Committee to make the 2020 election successful,” Lemley wrote. “If you think that being strong is constantly being on Twitter where anyone anywhere can read (and) bad mouthing our chairwoman is partnering, you apparently don’t know what it means to be a partner.”
Since Potter removed Cornelius from the committee, she also added additional members including Roger Conley, who was elected July 16 as chairman – a vote Cornelius says is invalid.
Conley served as vice chairman in 2015 when the county committee tried to oust Cornelius the first time due to his involvement to remove Bob Newell as mayor of Parkersburg.
Conley sees similarities between Cornelius’ “antics” in 2015 and his actions regarding Justice and Potter. Conley supported the effort to remove Newell, but believed that Cornelius’ actions during that time went overboard.
“I say antics, because I don’t disagree with what Mr. Cornelius started because of what was happening with a local elected official,” Conley said. “If this thing has legs, which it ultimately ended up having, it will get up and take off on its own. We don’t need to keep hammering on it. We don’t need to keep involving other people in it.”
TO DISSENT OR
NOT TO DISSENT
Conley also believes the issues with Justice would work themselves out in the May 2020 primary without creating added drama. A supporter of Republican candidate for governor and former Senate President Bill Cole in 2016, Conley said he won’t comment whether he supports or doesn’t support Justice going into the 2020 primary, but said party members have a duty to support Republican officeholders.
Conley recently invited Justice to his business in South Parkersburg last month for a town hall meeting, an invitation he extends to all statewide Republican candidates for office.
“Gov. Justice is now my Republican governor,” Conley said. “Does that mean I’m supporting him in the primary? I’m not going to make that comment. I support the party. It’s my job and should be the job of the rest of the Republican Party. This thing with the faction, we need to put it behind us.”
Cornelius disagrees, saying that state and county party leaders have a duty to speak against any Republican officeholder who doesn’t meet the standards of the party. Party committee members, volunteers and activists deserve open dialogue on these issues, he said.
“In order for voters to trust us as a party, and to trust me as a leader in my county, we have to be honest with them,” Cornelius said. “We cannot look at ourselves in good conscience and advocate for an absentee, deadbeat, crooked governor like Jim Justice, whether he wears a Republican jersey or plays for a different team.”
“Just standing in a garage doesn’t make you a car,” Cornelius said. “Jim Justice calling himself a Republican doesn’t make him conservative or honest or a warrior for West Virginia’s comeback story. He is a terrible teammate and an embarrassment to President Trump, Sen. Capito and all those we are proud to lift up as leaders for our nation.”