CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Delegate Ryan Ferns of Ohio County became West Virginia's newest Republican lawmaker Monday.
Ferns, 30, officially left the Democratic Party and announced plans to run for the state Senate seat currently held by Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Ohio.
Republican party leaders welcomed the switch. It's the second time in recent months a sitting Democrat has jumped over to the GOP and gives Republicans control of 47 of the House's 100 seats.
"We now stand only four seats away from taking a majority in the House of Delegates and reversing more than 80 years of failed Democrat policies," said West Virginia Party Chairman Conrad Lucas in a statement.
Democratic officials downplayed the decision, labeling Ferns as "ineffective" and questioning his principles.
Ferns is a physical therapist with small businesses in the Wheeling area. He's served in the Legislature since 2010.
"I just feel like I'm at a point where I'm not making any progress," he said Monday morning.
"I just really feel like the Republican Party is a better fit for me and my beliefs and for moving the state forward."
Although he said he's considered switching parties for some time, Ferns didn't make up his mind until this weekend. After speaking with family and friends, he said leaving the Democratic Party was the right thing to do.
"There are very few people who voted for me because I'm a Democrat," Ferns said Monday afternoon.
"People voted for me in my district because they feel confident that I'll always do what's right and what's best for our district and for the state of West Virginia."
He made similar statements in June after taking heat from Democrats when he broke party ranks and voted for the Republican candidate to replace outgoing speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne.
After winning the election, Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said he spoke with Ferns and was disappointed in his decision to vote for Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.
In a statement Monday, Miley pointed to a recent conversation that made him "somewhat (though not totally) surprised" at Ferns' decision to switch parties.
"He was in my office a few weeks ago where he was expressly asked whether he was going to switch political parties, and specifically stated to Delegate Doug Skaff, Majority Leader Harry Keith White, and me that he was not going to switch political parties," Miley said in the statement.
"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."
Ferns admitted he recently told Miley he had no plans at the time to become a Republican.
He said he didn't know what Miley meant in the part of the statement referencing reasons the speaker didn't want to say publicly.
Miley did not respond to an additional request for comment.
The move came as no surprise to state Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio.
"I just believe that Ryan, he's been a very ineffective delegate, really delivering very little if anything for his area," Puccio said Monday morning.
Puccio pointed to Ferns' last election as proof the delegate is opportunistic.
In 2012, Ferns pleaded guilty to a charge of driving under the influence after registering a blood-alcohol content of .229, according to The Associated Press. The legal limit is .08.
At first, Ferns announced he would resign but wouldn't comment on whether he would seek re-election. He didn't step down and eventually ran for the seat and won again.
"I've just never seen Ryan put his heart and soul into serving the people. He's just been very ineffective," Puccio said.