Less than a week has passed since Gov. Jim Justice switched his registration to the Republican Party, and one state Senate Democrat is already thinking about the path to a recall vote.
Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, is drumming up support for a bill he wants to introduce in the next legislative session that would give citizens power to vote officials out of office during their term.
“This isn’t a Republican-against-Democrat bill,” Ojeda said. “This is basically saying that any elected official in the state of West Virginia who is not living up to their promises and doing right by the people, the people should have a right to fire them. We always say that we work for you, the people. Well, if we work for the people, the people should have a right to fire us.”
Although he has not put together the official legislative language yet, he said the bill would allow citizens to gather signatures to petition for a recall. If they hit a certain percentage of the politician’s total number of votes from the election, it would trigger a recall election. If the public votes to recall, the state, county or town would then host a special election.
According to March 2016 research from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states and Washington, D.C., permit the recall of state officials.
Mike Queen, a spokesman for Secretary of State Mac Warner, said he would not comment on the idea because he had not seen a complete draft of the legislation.
As an example of the possible cost of recall votes, Queen said the upcoming special election in October for Justice’s proposed road bond issue will cost taxpayers roughly $3.1 million.
Ojeda created a change.org online petition over the weekend to back his proposal. The petition had racked up more than 2,600 signatures, as of Tuesday afternoon.
Ojeda, who is running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from the 3rd Congressional District, said the bill is not necessarily tied to Justice jumping parties. Instead, he said, he wants to introduce the bill to combat a culture of elected officials turning their backs on the people who voted them into office.
He did say Justice’s switch is a perfect example, though. Ojeda said the Democratic Party and its voters poured a lot of resources into the governor’s election bid, and he has since left them for dead.
“I think that what Jim Justice did was an absolute attack on the electorate,” he said. “Those are people right now that are feeling extremely duped because they did put their money behind him. There’s a lot of Democrats right now that are angry about what Jim Justice did. There are a lot of Republicans who are angry, too, because they don’t want him.”
Grant Herring, a spokesman for Justice, did not respond to a request for comment for this report.
Beyond Justice, the bill might be the byproduct of some Democratic infighting after a tough election year, nationally and locally. Ojeda said that, although the Democratic Party claims to be neutral and let voters hash out primaries among themselves, the party has been waging what amounts to a shadow campaign, backing fellow 3rd District candidate and Huntington Mayor Steve Williams.
“A lot of people cast their votes on what’s available and, unfortunately, there’s been a lot of back-door dealings and things that have happened,” Ojeda said. “People cast a vote, sometimes they don’t get to cast a vote for the people that they really want because of underhanded tactics that absolutely get the people that really should be in office, pretty much beat in the primary elections.”
Justice beat out Jeff Kessler and Booth Goodwin in last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, fueled in part by an endorsement from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Backing his claim of primary interference, Ojeda pointed to Paul Moya, who recently made similar claims in a Facebook post while announcing his resignation as chairman of the Greenbrier County Democratic Executive Committee.
Moya said Monday that the party has had a habit of backing whichever candidate Manchin chooses, citing Justice as an example, and the recent fallout as its byproduct.
Anyone looking for a bitter Democrat in the state need not look far. The Gazette-Mail reported last week that some prominent figures in the party have already called for the resignation of state party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore.
On Monday, Biafore denied claims of the party supporting any primary candidate over others. She said the party is supporting all candidates equally and had forwarded all their information to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
She said the harsh words are the result of some bruised egos after a rough election, but she said the secret-handshake days are over.
“The days of those smoke-filled back rooms just don’t happen anymore,” Biafore said.
She said it’s Justice who is the enemy, not her, and that there’s some misplaced anger in the air.
“There’s a lot of tension going on, there’s a lot of hurt feelings, there’s a lot of betrayal, but I just hate it,” she said. “The truth that’s floating around is bad enough.”
Cole Leiter, a spokesman for the DCCC, said Tuesday that “Folks in West Virginia’s third district have the chance to elect a representative who will stand up for their best interests. We look forward to working with and supporting whoever those voters nominate.”
Ojeda said he knows his bill’s track forward will not be easy, given how it could expose politicians to increased scrutiny and could be interpreted as an attack on the newly Republican governor.
“If you are truthful with the people and you believe that you work for the people, then you should also agree that the people deserve the ability to get rid of elected officials that aren’t doing their job and to include yourself if you are not living up to your promises.”