Reporter’s Notebook: Regarding the Big House
CHARLESTON — Mark it down, folks. There’s just 15 days until the 2020 general election on Tuesday, Nov. 3. Early voting starts Wednesday and continues on every day except Sundays until Saturday, Oct. 31.
Of course, absentee ballot voting has been going on since September. According to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, at one point last week there were a total of 120,770 absentee ballot applications, with 65,801 absentee ballots already cast.
Remember, the deadline to have your absentee ballot application into your local county clerk’s hand is Wednesday, Oct. 28. Sorry if I sound like a broken record, but I don’t want to hear anyone say after the election that they didn’t know the deadlines.
As we get closer to the election, time is speeding up and more and more things are happening. First, let’s talk about last week’s debate between Republican Gov. Jim Justice and Democratic Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango.
For one thing, both candidates should be applauded for keeping things civil. It’s sometimes hard to remember what civil even looks like in today’s divided political environment. It doesn’t mean that both candidates didn’t try to land punches on each other. That’s what debates are about, trying to tell voters who you are as you also try to define your opponent while showing how you’re different.
Justice didn’t have to try too hard. Based on the recent polling I’ve seen, most people know who Justice is and most seem to approve of him. Salango, on the other hand, needed to try to educate voters on who he was and what he stood for. The same polling shows a major name recognition problem for Salango. Likely voters have not made up their minds about Salango.
In a way, that can be a good thing. Last week’s debate is likely the first time that voters have seen Salango. Sure, he’s hit the road to campaign and he has TV ads out, but the debate was an opportunity for Salango to engage with those voters who don’t know him. Did it make a difference? We’ll see. Most races narrow, especially when you have two high-profile candidates.
One of the attack lines that came up during the debate was the fact Justice is being sued for not following the state Constitution by residing in the seat of government. Until we come to our senses and move the Capitol back to Wheeling, the seat of government is in Charleston.
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals heard arguments last week on a motion by Justice’s attorneys asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit brought by Del. Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, in his capacity as a private citizen.
Sponaugle’s writ of mandamus asks the courts to compel Justice to obey the state Constitution and live in Charleston. Justice’s legal team argues that he does reside and can reside both in Charleston and his home in Lewisburg, and that the courts don’t have the authority to determine how much Justice should be in Charleston and where he sleeps.
It’s almost irrelevant, since Justice has been in Charleston nearly every workday since the end of the Legislative session in March. He’s been on our screens giving us coronavirus response updates, executive orders, and other information. Now, as far as I know he doesn’t spend the night at the Governor’s Mansion (he isn’t required to) and he doesn’t grab a hotel. I don’t believe he rents or owns a home in city limits. He drives himself back to Lewisburg.
Before COVID-19, you might see the Governor’s SUV at the Capitol every other week, sometimes more depending on what was going on. While the buck stops with Justice, I’ve always been under the impression he prefers to delegate. When he did travel around the state, the state airplane would more often than not fly to Lewisburg and pick him up from there.
So, what will the state Supreme Court do? I don’t think they will dismiss the case. I think they’ll toss it back to Kanawha County Circuit Judge Charles King and let the process work. The last time I covered this case before King, he was pretty skeptical of Sponaugle’s arguments. If King rules against Sponaugle, I suspect the case will return to the state Supreme Court.
But what can a court really do beyond say yes, the Constitution says you must live in Charleston, even if it means living in a van down by the river. They’re not going to put an ankle monitor on the governor or an RFID chip in his neck to track his movements. Ultimately, voters will need to decide whether Justice choosing to sleep in Lewisburg is an issue, or the Legislature will either to draft articles of impeachment or move to amend the constitution to take that requirement out.
Keep in mind, not everyone has followed that rule. Former governor Earl Ray Tomblin would head back to his home in Logan County on the weekends. I’m told State Treasurer John Perdue lives in St. Albans, which is obviously not Charleston but in the same county. Justice Evan Jenkins said during oral arguments that only 20 states still have residency requirements for governors and constitutional office.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can work from anywhere as long as there is a good WiFi or cell signal.