Eleven weeks after an unprecedented election that resulted in a massive power shift in the statehouse and Congressional districts, the West Virginia Democratic Party chairman is resigning from his post.
Larry Puccio stepped down from the position he has held since 2010, when he announced his resignation Thursday. Puccio will become the chairman of Sen. Joe Manchin’s Country Roads PAC.
His departure will leave party vice chairwoman Belinda Biafore to serve as temporary chairwoman until the executive committee selects a replacement.
“From my time as Governor and now to my time in the Senate, Larry has always been a trusted advisor and someone who has always been connected to the political and legislative workings of West Virginia,” Manchin said in a news release. “Larry’s years of experience and dedication to the state of West Virginia will allow me to better serve the state as its senior Senator and stay connected to the issues that are affecting them.”
When reached Thursday afternoon, Puccio said he had been talking with Manchin since last summer about resigning his chairmanship and taking over the now senior senator’s political action committee.
“But we didn’t think it was the right time with elections coming up,” he said. “Sen. Manchin now believes he needs his PAC and the political arm of that PAC to be as active as can be.”
Puccio said while he will be connecting with people inside and outside the state he will continue to live in West Virginia.
“I’ll never leave this state,” he said, reiterating his plans to maintain a presence in West Virginia as a lobbyist.
Formerly a commercial and residential real estate appraiser, Puccio served as Manchin’s chief of staff when the Democrat was secretary of state from 2001 to 2005. Manchin became governor in 2005 and Puccio went with him, continuing to serve as his chief of staff.
In late 2010, Puccio announced his resignation from Manchin’s office and less than a week later he became the prime lobbyist for a Charles Town racetrack and casino, The Greenbrier resort and several other entities in the state.
He was only allowed to do so after obtaining an employment exemption from the state Ethics Commission, which he did prior to his departure from state government. Without that exemption, Puccio would have been unable to work for a regulated private-sector employer until one year after leaving his government post.
He was elected six months later, in June 2010, to serve as the state Democratic Party Chairman by a 57-6 vote of the state party’s executive committee. He defeated Walt Auvil,who at the time was serving as party chairman of Wood County.
Puccio took over as party chairman after Nick Casey, who had served as party chairman since 2004, was previously suggested by Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller to become a federal judge. Casey, however, did not receive the presidential nomination and did not get the position.
Since becoming party chair, Puccio has developed his lobbyist portfolio, despite criticism.
While he is not listed in the latest lobbyist filing with the state Ethics Commission — which Puccio said was due to a clerical error and should be remedied soon — as of November 2014, Puccio had 12 clients. They included Anheuser-Busch, Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, FirstEnergy, The Greenbrier, the West Virginia Press Association, Southern Coal Corporation, and United Heath System.
Following the most recent general election, many quietly called for Puccio to resign from his position as party chair. Party stalwarts, including Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, stood behind him, despite an election that resulted in the first Republican takeover of the Legislature in 83 years and a complete Republican sweep in Congressional elections.
But calls for his resignation were not new to Puccio. Prior to the 2010 general election, Margaret Kerr Beckwith, a member of the state Democratic Party’s executive committee, called for Puccio to resign as a way to “have a fresh start.” He prevailed and continued to serve as party chairman until today.
Puccio said Thursday that any calls for his resignation — in 2010 or after the 2014 election — didn’t affect him. When asked whether or not the most recent election results played a part in his decision to resign, Puccio said, “I’ll always stand by my staff. They did an outstanding job. Anybody who watches TV can tell this was a national wave.”
Following his resignation, Brittni McGuire, a spokesperson for the state Democratic Party issued a statement, saying, “Chairman Puccio has served the West Virginia Democratic party with dedication that has allowed us to do great things for not only Democrats but all West Virginians under his leadership. We thank him for his tireless work and continued support. He has made the decision to move on and we wish him the best in his next chapter.”
Puccio said frustration and disgust with the politics of Washington, D.C., were key factors in the last election. “It was basically the same in all states,” he said.
Biafore, 58, has served under Puccio as vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party since 2004. She was elected to the executive committee eight years before. She is a native of Fairmont and works for the Marion County Development Office. Puccio called Biafore an outstanding person who has touched more Democrats in the last 30 years than anyone else he knew.
According to party rules, Biafore must call for a meeting of the executive committee within four weeks.
Puccio said he believes the state’s Democratic Party has a bright future and will continue to work hard as the 2016 election nears. The election will include a gubernatorial race, of which Manchin has been considering entering.
When asked whether or not his latest move signals Manchin’s interest in running for governor, Puccio said, “I think this is an indication that shows Joe Manchin never forgot where he came from. He always has his door open to the concerns of West Virginians and wants to hear their concerns so that he can make West Virginia better.”