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BREAKING: W. Virginia AG calls for Special Election to fill Byrd seat

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July 8, 2010

By Joseph Kastner

CHARLESTON, West Virginia: In the wake of the death of Robert C. Byrd, long-time Democratic member of the United States Senate and controversial political figure, both on and off Capitol Hill, the fate of his vacant seat has been left in limbo for the past week. That changed on Thursday, July 8, 2010, however, when West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw announced that a special election was required in order to appropriately fill the unexpired term. McGraw's highly-anticipated opinion came directly on the heels of Democratic Governor Joe Manchin's request for legal advice regarding the volatile issue.[1] The state's top law enforcer added that both "a primary and a general election must occur, though he leaves it up to Gov. Joe Manchin as to when to hold the primary election."[2] Manchin is expected to call for a special session of the state legislature to hammer out specifics, such as candidate filings and party nomination deadlines.

The legal opinion was an unequivocal rebuke of Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's declaration last week insisting that "state election law does not allow the state to hold an election to fill Byrd's seat until Election Day on Nov. 6, 2012," though it does authorize the governor to appoint a successor until that time.[3] It has been speculated among political circles that Manchin is positioning himself to campaign for the vacant United States Senate seat.

Draft legislation released

Gov. Joe Manchin’s office released the draft legislation for the July 15 special session of the West Virginia Legislature. This legislation corrects state election laws to allow for a special election to fill the remainder of the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s term.

“The governor’s bill is very simple,” said Jim Pitrolo, director of legislative affairs and policy for Gov. Manchin. “We are taking the Attorney General’s opinion and clarifying state code so there can be no doubt as to how the law should be interpreted. This bill would merely clarify the state code so that there is no question that we could have a special primary and special general election.”

“We are releasing the bill to legislators and the public today for discussion and comment,” said Gov. Manchin. “Releasing the bill early should give legislators enough time to give it a full and thorough review. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant informs us that absolutely every day counts if we are going to be able to have a special primary election.”

This legislation clears up confusing language in West Virginia Code 3-10-3. The code calls for a timely primary filing period to fill senatorial vacancies. Because of this law, the Secretary of State’s Office ruled that the earliest a special election could be held would be 2012. The primary election for West Virginia this year was in May.[4]

Manchin appoints temporary replacement

July 16, 2010 Gov. Joe Manchin announced his former legal counsel, Carte Goodwin, would fill the remaining term of the late U.S. Senator Sen. Robert C. Byrd until West Virginians vote in a special election.

“Robert C. Byrd was a giant. We can never replace him,” Manchin said. “I have waited to make this appointment because I felt that it was critical that we went through the process the right way. I am very proud to appoint Carte to the United States Senate. Regardless of whoever occupies this seat now and in the future, it will always be known as West Virginia’s United States Senate Seat that was occupied for nearly 52 years by our beloved, faithful public servant, Robert C. Byrd. However, I am truly confident that Carte Goodwin will look out for West Virginia and he will make us proud.”

With this appointment, Goodwin is the youngest sitting member of the Senate. Goodwin served as General Counsel to Gov. Manchin from 2005 to 2009. Also, he was chair of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Nominations along with retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who sat on the committee as an honorary member. He left the Manchin administration to work for his family’s law firm.

Goodwin’s wife is an aide to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), his uncle is a federal judge, his cousin is a U.S. Attorney in West Virginia’s southern district and his aunt is Secretary for Arts and Education. Before his death, Goodwin’s father was chair of the West Virginia University Board of Governors.

“I want to thank the Governor for entrusting me with this awesome responsibility,” Goodwin said. “In turn, it is now my responsibility to work every day to earn the trust of my fellow West Virginians. I have no agenda, other than fighting for my state and putting the interests of her people first. Robert C. Byrd, the greatest public servant West Virginia has ever known, and a true giant of American history, has left quite a legacy. I cannot begin to replace Senator Byrd, nor can I hope to ever fill his shoes. But what I can do is emulate his work ethic and his commitment to West Virginia.”

The bills in both houses of the West Virginia State Legislature that would make possible a special election to fill Byrd's seat for the next two years are holed up. The State Senate approved their version of the bill on July 16 and the House of Delegates had their third reading of theirs on the same day.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), also a possible contender in a Senate special election, released the following statement:

I join the rest the state’s Congressional delegation in congratulating Carte Goodwin on his appointment to the U.S. Senate. And, I extend a hand of working friendship and cooperation to him so that together we can confront the pressing problems facing our nation and state.

While I come from the other side of the political aisle, I am optimistic that together we can work to improve our economy, protect and promote our state’s vital energy industry, and find real solutions to getting people back to work instead of more borrowing and spending like the failed stimulus bill that passed in 2009. As I travel the 2nd Congressional District, people’s highest concern is finding or keeping a job, and all of us in public office must make employment our main focus.

Today’s announcement by Governor Joe Manchin comes at what I hope is the end of a chaotic and confusing period in our state over our succession laws for U.S. Senate. The state legislature is working on a band aid solution for this crisis, and it is my hope that with diligence and transparency they create a fair fix that will allow for a Special Election as soon as possible including either a Primary or General Election on November 2nd. It is also important that the process provides adequate time for candidates to be able to file and wage a campaign for this seat and not be constrained by a narrow timeline to accommodate the wishes of one potential candidate over another.

It is troubling that upon the news of Senator Robert Byrd’s passing, the three elected executive officers of our state government who play a significant role in determining the process and timing of a Special Election – Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General – did not meet and work together on a course of action to address the known problems in the law. It is apparent that many elected officials, and particularly the person ultimately charged with calling a Special Election, have been more focused on political maneuvers to further their own political ambitions before fulfilling the obligations of their office on behalf of the people they were elected to serve.

Based on the person chosen from the rumored field of candidates to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy on an interim basis, it is once again evident that political ambition was the key factor in the selection. Governor Manchin followed the same path as Florida Governor Charlie Crist did last August when he appointed his former staffer for the sole purpose of protecting his own desire to run for the U.S. Senate seat.

In the coming months, West Virginians deserve a voice in the U.S. Senate who will be a fierce advocate for our state and that will require a person who has the experience and determination to stand-up to the leadership of his party and the President on important issues like the Obama Administration’s assault on coal. I have been on the frontlines in this battle, and I am eager to have our state’s Senators join me so that we can work in a bi-partisan manner to ensure our state’s energy industry continues to thrive and the actions of politicians in Washington do not cost West Virginians their jobs.[5]

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