Delegate Jeff Eldridge’s 22nd House District covers four counties in West Virginia, but Eldridge has been sending legislative updates this year solely to voters in Putnam County, according to mailing labels kept by the House of Delegates clerk.
Eldridge’s bulk mailing list has 2,330 Putnam County addresses — all residents of Hurricane — even though 75 percent of 22nd District voters live outside Putnam County.
This week, a state Republican Party operative filed an ethics complaint against Eldridge, alleging the Democratic House member specifically targeted voters in an area where Eldridge has struggled to secure votes in past elections.
“This is quite simply the use of our tax dollars to protect an incumbent,” said Rob Cornelius, a paid GOP consultant.
Eldridge said he sent letters to Putnam County constituents after receiving emails from Putnam residents who “felt they haven’t been represented in Charleston.”
Fifty-seven percent of 22nd District voters live in Lincoln County, 25 percent in Putnam, 11 percent in Logan County, and 6 percent in Boone County.
“I’ve lived in Logan, Lincoln and Boone,” Eldridge said. “Everybody there is familiar with me in those three counties, but I’ve never lived in [Putnam]. People in Putnam County don’t know me as well as they do in the other three counties.”
Eldridge said he sent “most” of his letters to Putnam County voters but was unaware that his latest mailing list solely had Hurricane addresses.
Eldridge said he has sent legislative mailings to residents of Logan, Lincoln and Boone counties in the past. Eldridge sent four letters to voters this year.
He said Delegate Josh Barker, who also represents the 22nd District, gave him the voter list. Barker lost his race in the Democratic primary last month by one vote.
“It’s not like I’ve done a special thing for Putnam County,” Eldridge said. “I received a lot of positive feedback about my letters from Putnam County, thanking me for sending them information. Part of me wanted them to know they still have a voice in Charleston.”
In the 2012 election, Eldridge finished second in the two-member 22nd District race, beating Republican challenger Michel Moffatt by 400 votes.
Moffatt, who lives in Hurricane, carried Putnam County with 2,715 votes, while Eldridge picked up 917 votes in Putnam.
Moffatt is running again for the 22nd District seat this year.
Cornelius’ ethics complaint alleges that Eldridge’s recent mailers were “an attempt to improve his electoral standing in the weakest part of his district.”
“He was a very poor candidate in Putnam County,” Cornelius said.
In Eldridge’s letters, he spotlights a bill that regulates chemical storage tanks. The Legislature passed the bill in response to the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries chemical leak. Hurricane has its own water system and was largely unaffected by the leak.
Other letters include information about gun rights bills, anti-abortion legislation and resolutions against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s limits on carbon dioxide emissions. Eldridge’s photo tops each letter.
The state GOP hopes to defeat Democrats like Eldridge as part of a plan to gain control of the House for the first time in 84 years. Republicans trail Democrats by six seats.
In recent months, GOP leaders have alleged that Democrats in the House of Delegates used state funds to mail out politically motivated letters to select constituents. Republican political operatives have previously singled out Delegates David Walker, D-Clay; Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha; and Justin Marcum, D-Mingo.
House Democrats say they’ve done nothing wrong.
Eldridge’s recent mailings cost the state about $1,800 in postage.
“There’s nothing that says I can’t send stuff out,” he said. “I could have sent it out to every registered person in my district, I guess. People should send out information to let their constituents know what’s going on at the Capitol.”
Earlier this month, the state Ethics Commission was poised to issue an advisory opinion about the legislative mailings but postponed a decision shortly before firing the agency’s executive director, Joan Parker.
Parker wrote a draft opinion that would give state lawmakers the green light to send out letters as long as they didn’t include contain campaign materials, campaign slogans, political-party propaganda or self-promotion.
The Ethics Commission’s final opinion on the mailings — expected to be approved next month — could affect the outcome of the complaint filed against Eldridge.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Eldridge said. “If the people running against me are behind this, then, to me, that’s just sad. It’s just politics.”
Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.