Independents in the General Assembly?

Photo of Delegate Wilt and Senator Obenshain. Used with permission from The Citizen https://hburgcitizen.com/

For much of the recent history of the Virginia General Assembly, the House of Delegates has been comprised of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. In fact, the longest-serving member of the body, Lacey Putney, was, for most of his time in office, an independent. The same doesn’t hold true for the Virginia Senate, however, as independents and third-party candidates have been unable to win any seats in the upper house. But, due to circumstances as a result of the 2020 elections, it is possible that we will see at least one independent in both the House and Senate of Virginia.

Before you ask, no, you haven’t missed a special election where independents won office. Instead, this outcome centers around another election, the 2020 Harrisonburg City Council elections. How could a city council race change the makeup of the General Assembly in Richmond? Let me explain. In that race, six candidates sought three seats on the council. Three ran as Democrats, one as a Republican, and one as an independent. Two members of the General Assembly, Senator Mark Obenshain and Delegate Tony Wilt, both Republicans from Rockingham County made donations to the independent candidate as opposed to his Republican challenger. According to VPAP (the Virginia Public Access Project), Obenshain made two donations to George Hirschmann, one in June and one in August totaling $586. His campaign chipped in another $250. Wilt also made two donations to Hirschmann, one in June and one in September totaling $500. In addition, Wilt’s business, Superior Concrete contributed $500.

Why does this matter? According to Article I, section 2, part A of the Republican Party of Virginia Party Plan,

“A voter who, subsequent to making a statement of intent, publicly supports a candidate in opposition to a Republican nominee shall not be qualified for participation in party actions as defined in Article I for a period of four (4) years.”

In addition, there is Article 7, Section C of the Party Plan.

A member of an Official Committee is held to a higher standard of support for nominees of the Republican Party than an individual who merely participates in a mass meeting, party canvass, convention or primary. Therefore, a member of an Official Committee is deemed to have resigned his Committee position if he (a) makes a reportable contribution to and/or (b) knowingly allows his name to be publicly used by and/or (c) makes a written or other public statement supporting the election of a candidate in opposition to a Republican nominee in a Virginia General or Special Election, and/or (d) becomes a member or an officer of or makes a reportable contribution to any other political party. A majority of the elected officers of an official committee are charged with recognizing when this provision is in effect.

Although such statements seem fairly clear, when I learned of this matter prior to the November election, I spoke to the chairman of the RPV, Rich Anderson, to see if my understanding is correct, that if a Republican supports a candidate who is running against a Republican, he or she would be expelled from the party.

Here is the exchange.

Good morning, Mr. Anderson.

I think you may have misunderstood my message to you on Facebook.  This fall, the city of Harrisonburg is holding elections for city council.  As such, the Harrisonburg Republican committee has nominated Dr. Kathleen Kelly as their candidate.  However, there is also an independent candidate running for re-election to the council.  Quite a few local Republicans are openly supporting the independent and, according to VPAP, have donated to his campaign.  My understanding of the RPV Party Plan is that such an action would expel this person from the Republican Party.  As section A, paragraph 2 states “A voter who, subsequent to making a statement of intent, publicly supports a candidate in opposition to a Republican nominee shall not be qualified for participation in party actions as defined in Article I for a period of four (4) years.” Is that not the case?

As such, I am curious about what actions the RPV will take about this matter.

Thank you for your time.

Here is the chairman’s reply:

Thanks for emailing, and your interpretation of the RPV State Party Plan is correct.

This involves members of a local Republican committee, so I think that this is the purview of the local party. I’m copying our RPV General Counsel for his comments.

Many thanks, Joshua.

     Rich

RICHARD L. ANDERSON

Chair, Republican Party of Virginia

Member, Virginia General Assembly (2010-2018)

Colonel, United States Air Force (1979-2009)

In addition, here is what the RPV General Counsel Chris Marston added:

Two provisions of the plan are implicated. For anyone who is currently a member of the Harrisonburg City Committee, they are subject to immediate removal if a majority of the elected officers of the committee find that they have supported a candidate in opposition to a Republican nominee. That’s in Art. VII.

The provisions in Art. I relate to subsequent nominating events. If any of the folks supporting the independent participated in the nominating process that made Kathleen Kelly the nominee AND as part of that process were required to sign a statement of intent, those folks can be prohibited from participating in future Republican nominating events. There’s not a central list of folks subject to that prohibition maintained by RPV. It’s up to the unit committee when administering subsequent nominating processes to enforce that prohibition.

Hope that helps.

Thanks
Chris

Given the information which is publicly available, this matter seems rather straightforward, doesn’t it? Senator Obenshain and Delegate Wilt, through their donations during the Summer of 2020, supported an independent candidate who was running against a Republican. As such, both are no longer members of the Republican Party and thus would be serving as independents in the General Assembly. Clearly, if any rank and file member of the party engaged in this behavior the party would be quick to remove them, right?

For example, this is an issue with which I have had personal experience. In early February of 2014, I received a phone call from the Harrisonburg Republican Party chairman who told me that I had been expelled from the party due to my support of a candidate who ran against a Republican in the 2013 election cycle. He stated that I was to have considered having resigned from my position. I would not have an opportunity to appeal this decision and if I attempted to attend a meeting of the Harrisonburg Republican Party I would be physically barred from doing so. Afterward, I called the Obenshains about this matter and was told “a good Republican” was someone “who supported all the Republican candidates.”

Unfortunately, however straightforward the rules might be, I’ve found during my decades in politics that they are often bent, skirted, or outright violated based upon the position, power, and connections of those involved. In this case, as both Delegate Wilt and Senator Obenshain are members of the Rockingham County Republican Party, you would assume the local unit would follow the RPV Party Plan and be quick to release them from the bonds of the party. However, it seems unlikely that the party will do anything about this matter. I know this because according to VPAP the Rockingham County Republican Party also donated to the independent candidate over the Republican. The local unit could not take action without revealing their own violation of the Plan and expelling both Wilt and Obenshain from their ranks without castigating themselves would be gross hypocrisy.

So, although if the rules were followed fairly and uniformly when the General Assembly starts tomorrow, we would have at least two independents in the chamber, instead it is almost certain that the political party will sweep this matter under the rug and take no action as these kinds of prohibitions only apply to the little people.

The Schmookler & Huffman Show (Episode LXXXVI)

With less than a month to go before the 2020 Presidential Election, Andy Schmookler and I discuss our predictions for the November contest. We both predict that Biden is favored in the presidential race, easily winning Virginia, but that doesn’t mean that his victory is a sure thing. Although I would have liked to spend more time on the subject, I also spoke about Amendment 1 to the Virginia Constitution and why, if you support free and fair redistricting, you ought to vote no.

If you missed the show live, you can catch it here.