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Reporter’s Notebook: Week two at the Legislature

While the second week of the 2020 legislative session was going on upstairs on the second floor of the State Capitol Building in Charleston, on the first floor candidates were lining up to get on the May 12 primary ballot and the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

According to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, 216 people have filed for office for everything from federal races, statewide races, the Legislature, and the courts.

It’s always interesting to me to see who runs, and this year it looks like there will be several fun primaries to watch.

For U.S. Senate, the Democratic primary between former Logan County state senator Richard Ojeda and Paula Jean Swearengin — who challenged U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin in the 2018 Democratic primary — should be dramatic. I’m told there is no love between Swearengin and Ojeda.

During the lead up to the 2018 primary, Swearengin was getting all the headlines as the coal miner’s daughter challenging Manchin from the liberal/progressive left. She was getting support and funding from sympathetic outside groups. That all changed when Ojeda, a retired U.S. Army officer and combat veteran, started taking her limelight when he ran for the 3rd Congressional District formerly held by state Supreme Court Justice Evan Jenkins.

Ojeda had national political operative and pundit Krystal Ball helping his campaign. He made headlines in 2017 when his medical cannabis bill passed the Legislature. And when the first teachers’ strike happened in 2018, Ojeda was front and center (more on that in a second). He even made it into a Michael Moore documentary. All this attention, I’m told, made Swearengin very hostile to Ojeda even though they were running for different seats.

I had overheard in December that some in the liberal/progressive community were souring on Swearengin and had hoped to find someone different to carry the fight to U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who is running for her second term as a Republican representing West Virginia. I’m a little surprised, though, that some think Ojeda is the answer to Swearengin.

Don’t forget, Ojeda — after losing the 3rd Congressional race to former Cabell County Republican delegate Carol Miller — decided to capitalize on his newfound fame in national liberal/progressive circles and run for President of the United States. He even introduced several bills in the state Senate one year ago and resigned his seat, sold his home in Logan County, and set up office in Washington, D.C.

By the end of January 2019 he had already shuttered his presidential campaign, and even tried to rescind his state Senate resignation, but it was too late. I still haven’t found an Ojeda supporter who understands what he was thinking. Perhaps he wasn’t thinking at all. Regardless, the whole period left a bad taste in some supporters’ mouths. And teachers haven’t been happy with Ojeda since he tried to take credit for the 2018 strike. While they appreciated his support, they didn’t appreciate him taking the credit.

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While some have been focused on the big names running for governor, I’ve been curious about one specific filing. Doug Six, a resident of Burton, filed for the Republican primary for governor last week.

Who is he? Funny you should ask. He was the owner of Blue Mountain, a survey company that specialized in aerial photography and mapping. They were bought out by the Thrasher Group in May 2018. Who is the co-founder of the Thrasher Group? Woody Thrasher, the former secretary of the state Commerce Department under Gov. Jim Justice, and now a Republican candidate for Justice’s seat.

Just to be clear, Thrasher had put his company in a blind trust. The acquisition was handled by others. But one has to wonder if the acquisition was handled to Six’s liking. Blue Mountain was considered a competitor to the Thrasher Group before being bought out. I’m also told that Six had called someone for advice on how to file. The caller ID said, “The Thrasher Group.”

Again, another interesting wrinkle to follow.

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My story last week on the “resignation” of former state Democratic Party chairman Larry Puccio from the state Democratic Executive Committee seemed to make waves.

I put “resignation” in quotes because Democratic state executive committee members and others associated with the party I’ve talked to don’t believe the story being put out by state party leadership

The controversy arose from my story Jan. 12 where I wrote about the latest campaign finance numbers for candidates for governor. I noted that Puccio — a long-time advisor to Manchin, a former state party chairman, and an advisor to Justice’s 2016 campaign when he was running for governor –donated $2,800 to Justice, who is running for reelection as a Republican.

That set off an email Jan. 14 from a state Democratic Party watchdog to members of the state executive committee calling for Puccio to either resign from his at-large seat on the committee — a seat traditionally given to the outgoing party chair — or for the committee to meet and remove Puccio. Other executive committee members chimed in, resulting in Chairwoman Belinda Biafore telling members that Puccio resigned. In a statement to me, Biafore said the resignation happened in November 2019, a month after the Puccio donation.

Again, several executive committee members and long-time party members don’t buy this story. They think Puccio got caught and Biafore is simply trying to save face. If there was a resignation, it happened last week, not November.

This drama is not likely over.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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