County switches alleged in tiff over W.Va. seat
Old rivalries and political futures are tangled up in an effort to fill former Sen. Walt Helmick's vacant Senate seat.
Helmick, D-Pocahontas, resigned from his 15th Senate District seat on Monday to become the state's agriculture commissioner.
Now, one person vying for the seat is claiming a good old boys network is suppressing her, and another person has moved from one county to another to make himself eligible for the seat.
An 18-member Democratic Party Senate search committee - with a man and a woman from each of the district's nine counties - will meet this morning in Romney to pick three names to send to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The governor has final say on who becomes the next senator.
Possible candidates include two former state lawmakers, Mike Ross and Tom Hawse; Bob Mayhew, a Chevy dealer in Romney; and Hampshire Circuit Judge Donald Cookman.
The 17 state Senate districts were rearranged in 2011 following the Census. That is creating a new calculation for Democrats as they seek to replace Helmick because the nine counties that were once in his district are now divided across three districts.
But Helmick's replacement has to come from the counties in the old district, which means the new senator will run for re-election in one of three districts. This gives Tomblin an interesting chess piece for 2014.
On the western side of the old 15th District - in the new 11th - Ross wants the appointment.
Ross, a wealthy businessman, said the Senate needs "some street-smart people." He's served in the Senate and the House.
Ross, a longtime resident of Randolph County, recently registered to vote in Upshur County to be eligible.
If a district includes more than one county, its two senators are not allowed to come from the same one. The old 15th District's other senator, Clark Barnes, is a Randolph County Republican.
Ross is known for hosting an event at his house during Coalton Days, a celebration in the Randolph County community. This summer, Tomblin gave a speech from Ross' porch in Randolph.
"I'm an Upshur County guy now," Ross said. He said he changed his voter registration to Upshur in November.
If Tomblin were to pick Ross, his term - which is the remainder of Helmick's - would be up in 2014 and he would be in the same district as incumbent Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas.
Ross said he does not plan to run against Tucker.
That means Democrats would not have a chance to pick up a new Senate seat.
On the eastern side of the old 15th District, in the new 14th, is Hawse, a businessman who sits on a bank board, owns a grocery store, has a farm and raises timber.
Like Ross, Hawse is a former member of the House and Senate.
If Hawse got the appointment, he is likely to challenge incumbent Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston - a chance for Democrats to pick up a Senate seat.
Each is doing a bit of jockeying for the job.
Ross met with Tomblin in the Capitol last week. He also gave $5,000 to Tomblin's inauguration committee.
Hawse said he is a Democrat with a proven record of winning elections.
"I've never lost, and on more than one occasion I have led the ticket," Hawse said.
But one name that is unlikely to be on the list is making noise, too.
Randolph County Democrat Margaret Kerr Beckwith said she, above all others, deserves the seat. Last year Beckwith challenged Barnes, who soundly defeated her 24,571 votes to 12,941.
"I ran and in the primary I was one of only three women from the Democratic Party that ran for the West Virginia state Senate," she said.
Beckwith said she is not getting consideration because she lives in Randolph County, where Barnes is from.
But she said Barnes is actually spending much of his time in Upshur County.
Barnes just sold nearly eight acres of property in the Randolph County town of Beverly, according to the Randolph County deputy clerk.
Barnes said there are three homes on the farm and he still lives in one of them.
Beckwith also questioned Ross' decision to change his registration to Upshur County.
Ross said his office and business are there.
"We can't use offices and old houses we are going to fix up someday," Beckwith said.
From her perspective, Barnes actually lives in Upshur and Ross actually lives in Randolph, but Barnes is pretending to live in Randolph and Ross is pretending to live in Upshur.
Barnes denies this.
"Obviously she hasn't out been out to my place in Beverly for coffee in a while, but she's welcome to come out; just give me a call," he said.
Barnes said he does spend some time overnight in different locations, including Lewisburg, Buckhannon, Fairmont and Kingwood.
The search committee is unlikely to consider Beckwith without legal proof of her allegations.