Political ‘Infrastructure’ and the future of West Virginia Politics

With all the discussion of physical infrastructure in the last six months, the possibility exist that we have forgotten about a more important type of infrastructure in society.  The political institutions which comprise key aspects of a democracy arguably constitute a more important ‘political’ infrastructure in our society.  In the last decade, the West Virginia Republican Party has significantly altered these institutions, which tilt elections in their favor for the immediate future.

Democrats once held great sway in West Virginia, but since 2000, the state dramatically turned red.  Some of the reasons relate to the focus on political issues.  The Bush administration started a trend of focusing on political issues leaning more towards the social policies rather than economic policies.  Most residents in West Virginia hold anti-abortion views and the GOP capitalizes on this in every single election.  And that’s part of the game, so to speak.  Candidates and their parties have the responsibility of framing the issues in a way which appeals to voters and then help turn out those voters.  However, the systems and means by which we elect our representatives are changing in ways which unfairly help Republicans.

So what are examples of these changes in political infrastructure?

1. Most people overlook the elected position in West Virginia of Secretary of State.  This individual bears the primary responsibility of ensuring free and fair elections for the entire state.  The Secretary of State possesses wide latitude in determining how counties conduct elections and tabulate votes.

While we often overlook the this position, the entire nation should understand the importance of the position after the mess with Georgia’s Secretary of State in the 2020 Election, where he refused to overturn the results of the state’s presidential returns.  In West Virginia, current Secretary of State Mac Warner raised eyebrows after his election in 2016 by firing 16 employees in the Office of Secretary of State almost immediately.  As it happened, most of the 16 employees were Democrats.  Warner hired 23 individuals, and almost all were Republicans.  Regardless of the level of employees’ competency, the optics were bad.  

Firing a group of people and then replacing them with members of one political party provides the Republican Party with their people on the inside of key government positions on how to handle election policy.  Moreover, those 16 people who lost their jobs?  They filed lawsuits for wrongful termination and settled with the state.  The payouts totaled over $3.2 million of your tax dollars.  Small price to pay for controlling the gears of elections.

2. The state legislature also contributes to the development of Republican political infrastructure.  One of their more recent changes involves the creation of an intermediate court system.  Prior to this change, any civil or criminal complaint would originate in the appropriate circuit court and any potential appeal moved directly to the West Virginia State Supreme Court.  The intermediate court of three judges adds another layer to the legal system, which benefits those who fall into the Republican camp.  Adding another court to West Virginia makes it more difficult for individuals with less financial resources to pursue a claim or an appeal in courts.  This, in sheer percentages, would likely benefit Republicans more than Democrats.  The new law, which maintains that these judges on the court will be elected in the future, allows for the governor to appoint the first round of judges on staggered terms.  Governor Jim Justice, of course, is a Republican.  

3. Last year, the State Senate passed SB 565, which would have altered elections in some concerning ways.  Current election law in West Virginia allows for early voting in person to occur from the 13th day prior to the election to the 3rd day prior to the election.  This law would have changed that early voting period to the 17th day prior to the election to the 7th.  What’s the rationale for this type of change? 

More concerning about SB 565 was the provision which would have allowed for purging voter registration rolls if a voter did not vote in the previous election.  This would allow the Secretary of State more control over elections and the right to vote.  If a voter sat out a single election, the Secretary of State could remove their name from the voting pool.  The Republican Party would control a significant piece of the infrastructure in elections.  

Ultimately, SB 565 did not pass through the House of Delegates before the 2021 session ended.  Yet, as with most legislation, it stands to reason that the bill’s sponsors will pick this up again in the 2022 session.  

4. Republicans currently hold a supermajority in both houses of the legislature, and this means they can pass virtually any piece of legislation they deem necessary.  Democrats can do little to push back.  One of the perks of having a majority at this particular moment is that the GOP controlled the redistricting process for the senate and the House of Delegates.  Republicans instituted some rather significant changes in this area which create more favorable circumstances for their candidates.

The most noteworthy change to the system stemmed from the decision to move from multi-member districts to single member districts in the House of Delegates.  Previously, the multi-member districts played an important role in helping to maintain representation of an area proportional to the community at large.  For instance, in the old system, I lived in House District 16, which had three seats.  A voter could choose up to three people to represent the district, allowing for a range of representation.  In the Election of 2020, House 16 had two Republicans and one Democrat.  Two of the three are white and the third is black.   

Multi-member districts also have a natural immunity to gerrymandering (redrawing district lines to help or hurt a candidate or group).  It becomes more difficult to fudge with the districts if less of them exist.  The old system had 67 districts, and the new one will have 100.  That’s 50% more districts to draw in a way that would benefit particular people, groups, or parties.

Questions quickly popped up over a change to a district affecting incumbent Caleb Hanna (R-44), whose new district would have included part of Pocahontas County.  Delegates requested the change because of a white supremacist group which lives isolated in Pocahontas County (Delegate Hanna is African-American).  The white supremacist group in said county is largely defunct and would likely have no impact on any election.  Critics also pointed out that the Republicans only wished to protect racial minorities if they were of the same party.

Republicans also redrew the districts into a fashion whereby many Democratic incumbents would face one another in an election, whereas few Republicans would face such primary contests.  

If you look at the new districts, some of the shapes appear bizarre enough to suggest gerrymandering.  The accompanying demographic data also presents some curious numbers on race.  Not one of the 100 districts contains less than a 74% white grouping.  Ironically, one of the districts which has the largest non-white percentage is home to Delegate Sean Hornbuckle (D-16), a candidate so widely popular in the Huntington area, he would probably win regardless of the racial makeup. 

There are only a few of the major areas in the state where I have a deep level of familiarity, and two of those are Huntington and Charleston.  If Republicans had a commitment to protecting racial minorities, I can assure you that the committee on redistricting could have drawn a better map for the Huntington and Charleston areas.

Why does this stuff matter?  

The most significant right any citizen has in a democracy is the right to vote.  Without that unobstructed right, the people are at the mercy of those in power.  The political infrastructure which is being altered in West Virginia is worth examining:

  • The Secretary of State’s mismanagement of a system which includes his stacking his office with political allies.
  • Creating an additional layer of courts which can only benefit those with financial resources, imbued with Republican appointed judges for the foreseeable future 
  • Attempting to alter voting rights legislation 
  • Abandoning multi-member districts 
  • Gerrymandering districts to benefit one party and certain people 

This leads to a state dominated by a single party and no true representation of the people.  The move from blue to red in the last two decades finally saw Republicans surpass Democrats in number of registered voters, with 36.8% and 36.5% respectively.  Surprisingly, 22.6% of voters in West Virginia hold no party affiliation.  These percentages definitely aren’t indicative of the government the state has.

The state has also witnessed a few politicians make a flip in party affiliation.  We are all aware of Jim Justice’s transition from Democrat to Republican, but others have seen the light, as it were.  

In 2014, Daniel Hall flipped to the Republican Party when the State Senate held a 17-17 balance, giving the GOP a majority.  At the time, he noted, “Political climates change, and I made a decision today to keep Raleigh, Wyoming and Mcdowell [sic] counties at the table in the West Virginia Senate. I have always picked our people over party…and did today as well. This decision will upset some, but had to be made for our district to be relevant.”  

This past summer, Delegate Mick Bates switched to the majority party, giving the Republicans a 78-22 advantage in the House.  Bates wrote in a statement explaining his move, “At a national level, the controlling interests and leadership of the Democratic party continue to pursue positions that alienate and anger voters in rural parts of the country and don’t reflect the priorities, values or beliefs of the people in West Virginia.”  That’s a coded message explaining that his district voted heavily for Donald Trump, and he sees the proverbial writing on the wall. 

Last week, another relevant switch occurred when former Delegate Doug Reynolds announced he was leaving the Democratic Party for the GOP.  The news seems relevant because it has to precede some type of announcement for another run at office.  Reynolds is not at all someone who could be described as conservative, but after losing the 2016 Election for Attorney General to Patrick Morrissey, he, too, must have seen which way the winds are blowing.

Reynolds’ party switch is more concerning than others because he founded and runs HD Media, which owns a number of newspapers in Southern West Virginia, including the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, and the state’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail.  These important institutional mechanisms for conveying key information, endorsements, and other political news have largely been fairly liberal in the past.  Does that change in the future?

One thing is for certain.  The Republican Party has effectively laid the groundwork for political domination of state politics for some time to come.  A one-party state benefits no one.

Marshall, Interrupted: Death Does Come in Threes

Marshall University is the second largest institution of higher learning in West Virginia, with a rich tradition dating back to 1837.  The school originated as a private school, and soon transformed to a public school for teacher preparation.  In the early 20th century, Marshall became a college with expansive programs and in 1961, the state granted it with university status.  Since obtaining university status, and particularly in the 21st century, Marshall administration sought to expand its programs and elevate its profile.  

Since 2000, the school constructed or renovated over a dozen new buildings for academics, residence, and athletics.  The Dot Hicks Softball Stadium is a fantastic place to watch a game.  The Hoops Family Field is recently constructed home to the 2021 National Champion Men’s Soccer Team.  The Herd Baseball team finally has a blueprint and land for a long overdue stadium.  The facilities have become an amazing part of campus.

Marshall continually expands its offerings in programs and facilities, including a new physician’s assistant program, a nationally recognized digital forensics program, a flight school in Charleston, and a new school of pharmacy.  The university was elevated to the ‘R2’ status as a research facility, meaning more high level research occurs in Huntington.

Marshall has also more fully embraced traditions involving its namesake, the Chief Justice John Marshall.  Annual celebrations with cake and quoits tournaments are the norm.  The new Rec Center offers first class fitness equipment and programs.  I am genuinely sad that these developments for Marshall occurred after I finished my education there.  It’s a great place for students to learn and become better people.  

Huntington is home to an ever expanding Marshall University

Currently, Dr. Jerome ‘Jerry’ Gilbert occupies the presidency of Marshall University and he deserves some of the credit for recent successes of the school.  Undoubtedly, there are numerous administrators, professors, and financial supporters of the school who deserve credit for the big moves in Huntington.  However, we know if the school didn’t succeed, Gilbert would take the blame.  The success or failure of the school falls at his feet.

Gilbert’s office has not only helped to expand the infrastructure of the school, but also has plans in place to increase the school’s national image, increase enrollment, increase freshmen retention rates, increase graduation rates, integrate the university with local businesses and non-profits, develop more graduate degree programs, and create more job training for the people in this area.  His plans and achievements seem to fall in line with the university’s institutional priorities (published in 2015, prior to Gilbert’s arrival).  

I like the trajectory of Marshall University.  So, it came as a surprise to me that Dr. Gilbert announced in late April that he would not seek to extend his contract as president beyond its current end date of July 2022.  His decision stated that would part with Marshall for “a variety of personal and professional reasons.” 

Dr. Jerome Gilbert has led Marshall during the past five years

On June 4th, we saw another strange announcement, this time from the athletic department.  Athletic Director Mike Hamrick announced he was stepping down from his position and would still serve the university in a fundraising capacity.  This seemed like peculiar decision, considering the school had only recently won the national title in men’s soccer.  Hamrick also (presumably) played a role in bringing the Herd’s new football coach, Charles Huff, to town.  The longtime AD also played a pivotal role in massive development of athletic facilities since his arrival in 2009.  Moreover, someone has to get credit for bringing Men’s Soccer Coach Chris Grassie to Huntington, where Grassie turned the Herd into a national champion in less than five years.

Just four days after Hamrick’s resignation, Dr. Jaime Taylor, school provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, announced his resignation.  He will become the new president at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.  While this represents a step up for Dr. Taylor’s career, I have to pause at the timing of this development.  Three prominent administrators leave the university within five weeks of one another and these men occupied the three most significant positions at the school. 

Marshall University, in terms of its athletics and academics, is in a good place.  I would hope that people in the Huntington region would want to know what the reasons are for the departure of successful administrators, particularly when Dr. Gilbert cited professional reasons for his decision not to seek a contract extension.  What’s going on in Huntington?

Marshall University’s Board of Governors are displeased with the administration.  Why does the Board of Governors have a problem with a successful administrative team?  

There is a clash of ideologies from Marshall’s Board of Governors and Dr. Gilbert

Key members of the Board of Governors hold conservative beliefs, and three of these individuals have donated directly to Governor Jim Justice’s campaign (this will become more pertinent in a moment), including Chairman Patrick Farrell.  

If you have questions about Dr. Gilbert’s liberal bona fides, he has pursued a number of liberal policies in his tenure, including 

  • Supporting a student led effort to rename Jenkins Hall, the namesake of which served as a general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was a slaveowner.  After the Board of Governors voted 9-7 to keep the name in 2019, they unanimously voted to change it in 2020.
  • Targeting racism on campus, endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement, and encouraging students to engage in programs such as a voluntary book study of Just Mercy.
  • Influencing the end of Stewart’s Hot Dogs contract as a food vendor at Marshall football games, after Stewart’s owner and legislator John Mandt (R) made negative comments about Muslims and homosexuals.  
  • An outspoken stance opposing bills in the state legislature that would have permitted the carrying of firearms on college campuses.

The tenuous relationship between Gilbert and the Board of Governors reached a new level of strain this winter, when the president and the athletic director made a bilateral decision regarding the head football coach, the crown jewel position of Marshall University.  The Huntington Herald-Dispatch reported in January of this year that Chairman of the Board of Governors, Patrick Ferrell, lamented the decision not to renew Doc Holliday’s (former Marshall football coach) contract, saying, “The Marshall president made this decision after consulting with Mike Hamrick.”  Ferrell also noted that Gilbert informed the Board of his decision, but the Board had no say in the matter.  

Speculation from a number of Huntington natives believed the more conservative crowd from the Board of Governors (and Governor Justice) wanted Brad Lambert (defensive coordinator under Holliday) to land the vacant head coaching position.  Regardless of who they wanted for the position, it seems clear they were not thrilled about being kept out of the loop.

There’s a serious disconnect between Governor Jim Justice and Dr. Gilbert

The nature of the relationship between these two hit a strange snag in 2017, when allegations surfaced that the governor was attempting to meddle in the affairs of Marshall’s football program.  According to The Charleston Gazette-Mail, the governor sought to have then head coach Doc Holliday fired and replaced with his old friend (and former head coach) Bob Pruett.

At one point, Justice stated he did meet with five members of the school’s Board of Governors, but claims he did nothing to pressure them to do fire Holliday.  The report was so bizarre, it drew the ire of The Washington Post.  After Marshall had a difficult 3-9 season, Justice’s chief of staff, Nick Casey stated, “It was not a meeting to say, ‘Fire the coach and hire Pruett,’ … “It was a meeting to say, ‘Ratchet up your game and do something to get yourself back to greatness.’ ”

The sports angle encompassed a significant portion of Justice’s complaints, but the governor also pontificated about stagnant enrollment at Marshall and wondered aloud why the number of students in Huntington had not increased in the same manner as West Virginia University.  (Maybe someone should tell him that it’s cheaper for New Jersey citizens to pay out of state tuition at WVU than in-state tuition at their public schools.)

A serious instance of the beef between Justice and Gilbert surfaced in February of this year, as the Marshall president told members of the state legislature that he had been asked to stay quiet about the budget shortfall for the year that would have impacted the Promise Scholarship program.  This was prior to the 2020 Elections, which could have negatively affected Justice’s chances at re-election.  Moreover, both Marshall and West Virginia University had expressed frustration at the state’s failure to send payments totaling approximately $5.65 million.

It’s also worth noting that Jim Justice, as governor, has the responsibility to appoint the members of Marshall University’s Board of Governors.  I’m sure that Big Jim did not appreciate having budgetary problems aired in front of the state legislature, let alone the entire state.  

West Virginia puts the squeeze on higher education 

West Virginia’s government has slowly, but steadily reduced its commitment of tax dollars to higher education, and of course, this includes Marshall University.  As recently as Fiscal Year 2013, the state appropriated $54 million to Marshall, but for Fiscal Year 2020, that figure dwindled to $44 million.

With the reduction in state funds, difficult budget decisions must be made, and often this means reducing salaries, changing job descriptions, and more notably, raising costs of tuition and housing.  It is no secret that rising costs in higher education is an issue across the nation, but the lack of any effort from the state to correct this problem might have been too much for Gilbert to continue fighting.  

West Virginia appropriations to Marshall University trends downward

West Virginia also has a peculiar attitude towards higher education.  Currently, only 20.6% of West Virginians hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is well below the national average of 32.1%.  Do people here shun higher education?  To some degree, yes.  Many West Virginians hold a perception that individuals with higher education believe they are better than those without an education.  It’s as if those highly educated folks sit up in their ivory towers and have no idea what normal West Virginians experience.  And those without higher education sit in judgement of their fellow citizens, questioning their expertise and usefulness.  (Side note:  In case you’re wondering, West Virginia ranks lowest in percentage of citizens with a bachelor’s degree in the United States, and this includes Puerto Rico.)

The lack of higher education is somewhat attributed to the fact that many young college graduates leave the state.  However, I believe the disregard for higher education and expertise among the citizens bleeds into the government, as well.  For instance, here in West Virginia, I marveled at the 2018 Republican Primary (for the 3rd District House seat) when candidate Conrad Lucas was criticized for earning a degree from Harvard University (read about it here).  Lucas’ opponents clearly understood that criticism would resonate with Republican primary voters.

Maybe Dr. Gilbert, Dr. Taylor, and Hamrick grew tired of fighting against the legislature, the governor, the school’s board, and a state that didn’t appreciate them.  Did their ideological views always represent the majority of West Virginians?  No.  But this is no reason to discard a team that has a positive net effect.

What now?  

With Gilbert’s contract expiring in 13 months, and the two other positions lacking a permanent replacement, one has to wonder what the future of Marshall University will be and, what is the Board of Governors doing to remedy the situation?  How will we attract quality administrators to these positions if they lack the freedom to do their jobs? 

I’m not alone in questioning this set of decisions.  In the June 16th edition of The Charleston Gazette-Mail, an opinion piece from Marshall football alum Martin Palazeti outlines the odd circumstances of Mike Hamrick’s departure.  Palazeti’s piece rightly questions why Marshall would part ways with an employee with such a successful resumé.  

I want to be wrong about three resignations occurring within a five week period.  I hope it’s merely a coincidence.  But, the older I become, the less I believe in coincidences.  If there’s information we aren’t seeing, please, someone, tell us.  But I think the Huntington community may also want answers with respect to why these changes occurred, and they deserve these answers.