There’s a default counter in West Virginia if anyone is ever challenging a statement, action or ideal, especially discussed in public by members of the Republican Party, as racist. It goes like this: “Well, what about Robert Byrd?”
As many know, Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate and regarded by many as the best legislator West Virginia ever had, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, he helped found and lead the first chapter of the Klan in West Virginia in the 1940s, when he was in his early 20s. There’s no escaping it. Byrd was a racist in his youth, and even later in his legislative career. He filibustered against the Civil Rights Act.
Of course, Byrd’s career didn’t end in the mid 1960s. He went through a personal reckoning and emerged as a champion of civil rights and a staunch anti-war advocate before his death in 2010.
It requires a sort of nuance to understand that maybe not all people are just one thing, so this is rarely considered when someone bellows “What about Robert Byrd?” as former state Sen. Robert Karnes, who is seeking reentry to the Legislature’s upper chamber, did to longtime Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, in a recent Facebook discussion.
Pushkin claims Karnes then asked him if he was “in the Klan?” to which Pushkin responded, “I’m Jewish, you moron.” (The KKK, while obviously hostile toward minorities of differing skin color, also likes to lump Jews and Catholics into their cauldron of hatred and blame).
The screen capture of the discussion then shows Karnes reply, “so is george soros, but he made his fortune selling Jews to the Nazis. Maybe you can be like george.”
This is reprehensible enough on its face, but it needs to be pointed out that George Soros (a billionaire who happens to be Jewish, and is therefore at the center of all kinds of tinfoil conspiracy theories) was about 9 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland, and in his early teens when the war ended. He wasn’t selling anything to anyone. This isn’t even right wing static, it’s fringe flying saucers and lizard people territory. The boundaries have been tested in recent years, but it’s still safe to say there’s no place for that in the state Senate.
Karnes was a loud, divisive force fueled by rage when he was previously in office. He was voted out — primaried, in fact — because his constituents didn’t want him representing them anymore. So, he switched his residency so he could run again in 2020 instead of having to wait another four years.
It would be a shame in a time when West Virginians are ditching divisive and downright embarrassing politicians (re: Eric Porterfield’s primary loss), to let Karnes back into the Capitol. A man so clearly angry and disturbed is not bringing anything productive to the table. Voters in the Senate’s 11th District should send Karnes to one of his homes in November.
It can’t be ruled out that Karnes will have a Byrd-like about face in his future, but it seems unlikely. Not in the Legislature, in any case.