The West Virginia 2010 Primary Election:
Who Cares What a Circuit Clerk Does?
And I say that with love - OK, not with love. How about with tongue in cheek, that sounds more like me. The full title for the “circuit clerk” is the “Clerk of the Circuit Court.” If that sounds like a great bloody bore of a job, I imagine that that’s because it is a great bloody bore of a job. At least it would be to me. It is also job of a lot of responsibility. In West Virginia, the primary court of record is the Circuit Court. Any serious lawsuit or criminal case is before the Circuit Court, and the Circuit Court clerk also handles all records of the Family Court. The most public part of the Clerk’s office job is providing court room clerks who sit beside judges and do, well, clerkish-type work for them. The bulk of the Clerk’s office work, however, is moving paper around, filing paper, converting paper to electrons, notifying people about hearings, gathering juries, and so forth. If the Circuit Clerk’s office is doing the job well, the judges and the lawyers are the only ones who notice. If the Circuit Clerk’s office is not doing the job well, then the judges and the lawyers are pretty much still the only ones who will notice for a good while. Oh, the public will notice that things are screwed up at the courthouse, but they won’t know that it’s the Circuit Clerk’s office that’s be the problem.
In the old days, the Circuit Clerk’s job was pretty much a political sinecure, and the holder of the office could choose to hire a good deputy clerk and spend most of his or her time doing political stuff. The work within the office has exploded, however, with a lot more paper being filed (secondary to everybody having computers), and you need to electronically organize and store filings, and so it takes a legitimate working administrator to run the place.
Here is the rub: It is a partisan elective office, which pays $55,000, and the Clerk is elected for a 6 year term. No Republican has run in Marion County within my recollection, since the registration runs about 70-30 Democrat and the Republicans have concluded, correctly in my judgment, that nobody cares enough about what the Circuit Clerk does to jump party lines. (West Virginia voted for McCain in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2004 and 2000 - don’t mess with our guns or our coal.) The incumbent Circuit Clerk, Barbara Core, was appointed to fill a vacancy back in the 80's, and has been elected for several terms since. Barb is my friend. Barb is very competent, and has led the state in implementing computers in the Court system. Six years ago, she had a serious challenge from Vera Sansalone in the primary election, and Vera came within 2,000 votes, which is really close in a Democrat primary in Marion County. Vera is married to my friend Kevin Sansalone, a lawyer, and her father-in-law was Frank “Sax” Sansalone, one of my mentors who I dearly, dearly loved and deeply miss. I don’t know Vera well at all, but I know she’s competent, worked in administration/management at a steel company in Wheeling for many years, and now runs “Main Street Fairmont,” a community development thing.
Vera spent a lot of money in the campaign, and campaigned smart, i.e., not just going to party stuff but going to where real people were. Barb got a late start, but did essentially the same thing. Vera swamped her in ads and billboards and so forth.
The problem is, WHO CARES WHAT THE CIRCUIT CLERK DOES? Or, more precisely, how do you educate the public so that the selection will have some rational basis?
Answer? You don’t. Cute signs. Phone banks. Post cards. Rallies. “I’m for Barb/Vera.” Buttons. Bullshit, bullshit. How can anyone judge who will make a better office manager/administrator? Experience? OK - what is the experience? Relevant? What are the results? Why did the results occur?
Simply talking about the opportunity of the public to have input into the political process is nonsense. NOBODY believes that the public knows what they are doing - if any candidate did, signs and commercials and buttons would SAY SOMETHING and not focus on font, color and the name really really big. Nobody has any input into who a lot of the genuine political players are in Marion County, or anywhere. Do you doubt that? OK, one of the people with the largest political hammer is the newspaper publisher. After all, all of the Morgantown paper’s protestations to the contrary, the Times-West Virginian is Marion County’s paper, and candidates would shine the publisher’s shoes and wax his car if that would help them get an endorsement. (It wouldn’t.) Let’s see, when’s the next election for publisher . . . See what I mean? And the money people, there are always questions of “Who is XYZ supporting?”, not because s/he is wise and sage, but because s/he is willing to funnel money into a campaign for the no-information buttons and signs and radio/TV ads. Is there a money-guy election? Nope.
The problem with null-information campaigns (and false information, cherry-picked information, disinformation, and the old double-shuffle campaigns) is acute in policy-making races where party affiliation and philosophy theoretically are important. The problems are strictly Twilight Zone stuff for the Circuit Clerk (and County Surveyor, County Clerk, Agriculture Commissioner, Auditor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Assessor, Sheriff and a host of other jobs.) (Oh, maybe not attorney general - a creative nutjob can create chaos if s/he tries.)
Oh, never bitch unless you have a solution - the Circuit Court is run by the Judges. Make the Clerk’s position appointed by the judges.
PS - Barbara won re-election by around 900 votes. A measure of a defeated candidate’s future in politics is how s/he reacts to a loss. We’ll see.
The Congressional Blues:
Alan Mollohan, the incumbent member of Congress for the First District in West Virginia, had serious opposition for the first time in many years. His father was in Congress and when he retired, Alan stepped into the seat. He was a big city lawyer, then a Marion County lawyer (I suspect to set himself up to run for Congress). After the 1990 census, West Virginia lost its fourth congressional seat, and 1992 was the last time Alan had any real competition, when he and Bucky Staggers, both incumbents, had to go against one another. That was a memorably vicious campaign. In the meantime, he advanced to a high position on the Ethics Committee and to Chairmanship of Appropriations.
Rep. Mollohan was on the Republican hit list and also on Sarah Palin’s Loony-Toons hit list. These lists are developed ostensibly because the list makers complain that particular politicians are not doing a good job for the American people, yadda, yadda. Never let it be said that I think a whole hell of a lot of people in politics tell the truth. The hit lists are designed simply because someone is seen as vulnerable, that is, there is a way to beat them and install the list-maker’s clone. There is no other reason for such a list. Rep. Mollohan had some ethics trouble over some terrible appearances and financial dealing, and his personal finances have gone from comfort to minor fortune in his years in office. That seems improbable as a part-time activity. Also, some publicly funded corporations that do real estate development and so forth are providing pretty decent sinecures for some of the representative’s friends. While the Justice Department closed its investigation, Rep. Mollohan was vulnerable to financial accusations which won’t ever be proven, but in politics, nothing has to be proven. The appearances here were enough for trouble. Rep. Mollohan chose to brush off the allegations.
Rep. Mollohan’s primary election opponent was former state senator Mike Oliverio. He is a decent fellow who ran unsuccessfully for Secretary of State twice which, in West Virginia, is a largely useless elective office the purpose of which seems to be to get ready to run for governor. (An exception was when my friend - everybody’s friend, actually - A. James Manchin was Secretary of State. He used the office to be the Voice and Ambassador at Large for Mother West Virginia.) Sen. Oliverio announced his plan not to seek reelection to the State Senate at the last minute, which created chaos in that race and which was somewhat disappointing. He also said that he was going to run a totally clean campaign. He did not have his own big money to mount a credible run at a Democratic congressional primary nor a real base to run from, so I was fairly certain that he was lying about that. He was, and he pulled the knife pretty quickly and carved away with a will. He also said that he would “put the campaign in God’s hands.” If God came up with his attack ads, He’s gotten a little bit nasty of late.
Maybe Mike meant that if he won, he’d win with good grace and if he lost, he’d lose with good grace.
Not so with so many other candidates for office – here’s a news flash, guys: God does not vote. None of you has a divine right to be in office. Anyone who believes that he or she “belongs” in office does not belong there. Anyone who places great trust in her or his “wisdom” has none. Those who take one office to yearn for the power of higher office deserve neither. The only thing which counts is service.
Oliverio slaughtered Mollohan, 56% to 44%. Pundits say that this is an anti-incumbent thing. Bullshit, I say. Several years of bad publicity which was ignored set Alan up.
The Republicans had a contested primary, too, which was won by Dr. David McKinney, a former state party chairman. He’s an affable looking fellow, and lined up big bucks for the primary. He’ll have money for the general election, but his best opponent would have been Mollohan. Now he has money and knives and nobody to cut up.
Gerry Spence, the greatest trial lawyer of the 20th century and a captivating writer, proposed quite seriously a drastic revision to our governing style in his book Give Me Liberty. He advocated governance by drafting people from the population, and retaining those who were particularly successful in a higher advisory capacity. I might add that this might even work, especially if by entering into public office, one gave up one’s wealth in exchange for a reasonably generous pension, that they might be assured of future comfort at a reasonable level. Otherwise, the stench of money and influence in politics remains the bane of our liberties.
Me? I'm running for County Line.