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A Power Grab in Kentucky Sparks a Revolt

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, left, and Jared Dearing, executive director of the State Board of Elections, during an emergency meeting of the SBE on Aug. 28, 2018, soon after Dearing filed a complaint against Grimes describing her office’s increasing power over the board. Photo: Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes expanded her sway over Kentucky’s election process with audacity, a willingness to fight — and a board that didn’t appear to be paying close attention. But the conflict isn’t over.

The September 2018 meeting of the Kentucky State Board of Elections was strikingly contentious. There was shouting, cross-talk and threats to eject staff — all playing out in a public forum in front of TV cameras.

But the most unusual moment, perhaps, was this: Two board members moved to rescind the votes they had cast at the previous meeting, only three weeks before. They claimed that Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, whose position also makes her chairwoman of the State Board of Elections, or SBE, had essentially misled them into granting her unprecedented day-to-day power over the SBE. The board members’ efforts to void the resolution failed. Grimes cast the deciding vote.

Today, Grimes wields that new power over the SBE — and she’s facing a revolt by some staff as well as a loss of trust from many of the county clerks who administer elections, according to interviews with more than 30 people involved in the election-administration process, as well as documents and emails. “Alison has just got so much more access to things than any other secretary of state I’ve known,” said Julie Griggs, the clerk of McCracken County, who has worked in that office for 30 years. (Like Grimes, Griggs is a Democrat.) “It’s too much control for one person to have.”

Tension between Grimes’ office and the SBE has “turned our office upside down,” longtime SBE employee Sheila Walker wrote in an email to the board in August, adding that the agency had “never experienced anything like this in past years.”

Meanwhile, Grimes has slowed the process of cleaning the state’s voter rolls. That could put Kentucky out of compliance with an agreement it signed with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve the accuracy of its rolls. In an interview, Grimes denied the state was out of compliance.

Grimes asserts that as the state’s chief elections officer, it’s only natural that she exercises close control of both the secretary of state’s office and the SBE. She has cited the SBE’s resolution granting her day-to-day control of the agency as an endorsement of the breadth of her power. Consistent with the resolution and Kentucky law, Grimes has “taken an active role in the operations of the SBE,” according to a statement provided by her legal team. The statement denied that she has introduced partisanship into the SBE.

Kentucky has long split election oversight between two agencies to reduce the possibility of partisan control, according to experts. The secretary of state manages the candidate nomination process, while the SBE handles almost all other state election functions, such as maintaining voter rolls and coordinating with the 120 county clerks in the state who oversee polling sites.

In keeping with the goal of nonpartisanship, past secretaries have presided over the board meetings of the SBE but allowed its staff to run day-to-day operations unfettered. “It appears that Grimes views the SBE as an arm of her office,” said Trey Grayson, who served as secretary of state from 2004-11. “I certainly didn’t.”

Three state agencies are now investigating what multiple SBE staff members have called a “power grab” by Grimes. The investigations largely originated with complaints by those staffers, who charged that Grimes was encroaching on the SBE’s responsibilities.

One aspect of the secretary of state’s response to the investigations suggests how closely the agency oversees the SBE: An assistant secretary of state, Erica Galyon, requested the right to sit in when investigators question SBE staffers, as did Luke Morgan, a lawyer that Grimes retained to represent the SBE.

That proposal did not go over well with the Kentucky Personnel Board, one of the agencies investigating Grimes. A lawyer for the Personnel Board emailed Galyon and Morgan, rejecting their request to be present. The email quoted messages from unnamed SBE staffers. One noted, “Our staff has been intimidated enough…is it possible to request that they not be there?” Another employee wrote, “We all just want to do our job and not be in constant fear of SOS staff retaliation.” (Grimes’ statement defended Morgan’s right to be present for the investigative interviews but did not address Galyon’s role.)

The power struggles have led to a stalemate. SBE staff is unwilling to trust the secretary of state’s office, which they’ve been told to report to, and Grimes has been stymied in her attempts to remove the SBE’s two top executives.

SBE employees say Grimes’ team is controlling even basic tasks. For example, they say they’ve been barred from meeting with third parties — including the Department of Homeland Security, which regularly assists states with cybersecurity services — without consulting the secretary’s office.

The SBE has been barred from having staff meetings without someone present from the secretary’s office. The SBE is also no longer allowed to handle its own public records requests. Document requests made to the SBE for this article were decided by the office of the secretary of state.

Asked what’s driving Grimes’ efforts to expand the scope of her role, her communications director, Lillie Ruschell, said, “I think the secretary has made it pretty clear that first and foremost, it’s her job to [have day-to-day oversight] and second, she is somebody who is on the ground every year and every day.” Ruschell added: “She’s only as involved as she feels she needs to be. She’ll back off if she needs to, but if she needs to or wants to [be involved] that’s her prerogative.”

Grimes’ attempts to expand her power first surfaced publicly in the fall of 2017. That’s when Matt Selph, then assistant executive director of the SBE, filed a complaint against her to the SBE. Among other things, it detailed a litany of ways in which he claimed Grimes and her team were increasingly asserting control over the SBE: insisting on approvals of new hires and even that Grimes’ office had to vet any correspondence between SBE staff and the organization’s board.

Grimes and her supporters brushed off Selph’s complaint as a partisan attack by a Republican. She persuaded the board to fire him. Not, she maintained in a closed session, in retaliation, but because he had allegedly harassed two employees. In an interview for this article, Grimes said Selph was terminated “for the protection of the workers at the State Board of Elections.”

Don Blevins Sr., who was on the board at the time and voted against the termination, called the accusations “weak.” And interviews for this story with more than 25 people who had worked with Selph failed to turn up anyone who witnessed any harassment. Nearly all said they believed Grimes fabricated the accusation to justify the firing, a statement echoed by Selph, who fought in the Iraq War and asserted that Grimes attempted to portray him as a troubled veteran to try to tar him. (In her statement, Grimes did not address the allegations that she fabricated the claim. For his part, Selph filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the state.)

Complaints about Grimes cycled back into view in late August 2018. Jared Dearing, a Democrat who Grimes had selected as executive director of the SBE, filed a complaint that was strikingly similar to Selph’s.

Grimes snapped into action. She called an emergency meeting of the SBE for the next day, Aug. 28. At the meeting, most of which was closed to outsiders, she and Dearing squared off against each other, trading heated arguments as the board members watched in stunned silence.

Dearing at the Aug. 28 meeting of the SBE. Photo: Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader

Eventually, Dearing was asked to leave the room. After he departed, Grimes continued to assail him at length, using words she has repeated to the media multiple times since, that he has a “fundamental misunderstanding” of her office’s statutory authority. Her extended criticisms of Dearing left the impression that Grimes wanted him ousted, according to a person with close knowledge of the board.

The emergency meeting ultimately lasted six hours. Before it ended, Grimes took one more step that would spark a controversy. Having grappled directly and indirectly with Dearing over the extent of their respective sway, Grimes insisted that the board needed to at least reaffirm her powers.

Weary after the hours of combat, the board decided to “pacify” Grimes, according to the source with knowledge of the board and multiple others who have spoken to board members, by adopting a resolution that reaffirmed her powers. They viewed it as a harmless step.

The vote was 4-0 (two board members were absent and the chair tends not to vote unless there is a tie). But two of the four who voted would almost instantly regret their actions.

Only three weeks later, the board reassembled for a regular meeting, with a full complement of six members and the chair present. Republican members DeAnna Brangers and Josh Branscum attempted to rescind the previous vote.

“Frankly, I’ve come to regret my vote on it,” Brangers said, according to an audio recording of the meeting. Board members, she explained, were “under the impression that it really just codified things that are already written in state and federal law. I mean, who can argue with that?” After she began to look at the resolution in more detail after the meeting, Brangers said, she realized she’d made a mistake. (Brangers did not explain how she missed the plain language of the resolution, which stated that the secretary of state “is necessarily charged with the day-to-day oversight of regular operations of the Kentucky State Board of Elections and its staff. …”)

It was too late. The effort to rescind the vote split along partisan lines and Grimes cast the deciding vote against the motion. Since then, she has repeatedly pointed to the disputed resolution as proof of the board’s confidence in her.

That confidence isn’t universal. In late September, the Kentucky County Clerk’s Association presented a letter signed by all 120 clerks in support of Dearing and Jennifer Scutchfield, Dearing’s second-in-command. Kenny Barger, the Republican clerk in Madison County, co-authored the letter with a Democratic clerk. “It comes to a breaking point sometimes, where you just have to call it and speak out,” he said.

Clerks have begun calling board members to express concern. Many interviewed for this article contend that Grimes has damaged the relationships between her office and the clerks, people she has little authority over but whose cooperation she and the SBE need to implement statewide programs. Grimes is term limited as secretary of state — her tenure runs out at the end of 2019 — and clerks hope her replacement will be less controlling.

Another point of controversy has been Grimes’ handling of a federal order regarding voter-roll maintenance. SBE board members and staff argue that she has prevented the board from complying with the order.

Grimes has long opposed what she refers to as “purges” of the voter roll. Like many Democrats, she views them as attempts to suppress voting. In the wake of a June 2018 Supreme Court ruling that granted Ohio the ability to remove people’s registration if they skip voting for several elections and fail to respond to a mailer, Grimes said she would never remove Kentuckians from the rolls for that reason.

At the time, Kentucky was already under fire for improper list maintenance. In early 2018, the Department of Justice joined a lawsuit against the state filed by conservative activist group Judicial Watch. The DOJ alleged that, since 2009, Kentucky had violated federal law by failing to send postcards to verify that voters’ address records are up-to-date and accurate. The lack of checking, the DOJ claimed, resulted in a voter roll with numerous incorrect entries. The state signed a consent decree on July 3 that committed Kentucky to implementing the address-checking process now and in the future.

The process has revealed a significant number of outdated registrations. Almost 300,000 postcards have been returned as undeliverable, suggesting that those voters do not live at those registered addresses. That’s equivalent to about 8 percent of registered voters in the state.

But no further actions have been taken, and some staffers and board members believe that’s intentional. Dearing’s complaint alleges that the day the consent decree was signed, Grimes insisted he stop the address-checking process. A week later, after Dearing complained about the legality of the request, according to the complaint, then-assistant secretary of state Lindsay Hughes Thurston told him and Scutchfield they could restart, but they were to “slow walk” the process.

The delays have frustrated some county clerks. “That reflects on me,” said Griggs, the clerk in McCracken County. “My county. And I don’t like that.”

The Justice Department concluded that the SBE was dragging its heels, according to a letter DOJ attorney David Cooper sent to the state in mid-September. Kentucky had agreed to begin sending additional mailers before Aug. 8 and failed to do so. Among other things, the letter asserted that the SBE had “ceased” what had been productive working discussions “and directed that all further communication take place through outside counsel.” Cooper wrote that Kentucky had “fallen short of its obligations” under the consent decree. (Neither the DOJ nor Judicial Watch responded to requests for comment.)

Morgan, the lawyer Grimes retained for the SBE, responded to the DOJ letter, asserting that the Justice Department had in fact approved a delay in order to ensure no voter was unfairly disenfranchised. He has since claimed the same to board members, and emails show at least one board member has asked Morgan to send proof that the DOJ made such an agreement. To date, Morgan, who did not respond to a request for comment, has not done so.

Compliance with the consent decree has become a major part of one investigation of Grimes, according to people questioned by investigators. Kentucky’s attorney general appointed Mark Metcalf as an independent counsel last year, initially to examine the allegations raised by the SBE’s Dearing. Metcalf declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. (Grimes’ statement to ProPublica and the Herald-Leader did not address the issues raised about the consent decree.)

Grimes appears unlikely to change her approach even under the pressure of investigations. At the September SBE meeting, after the Executive Branch Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion finding that her access to the voting registration system may require her to recuse herself from her role as chief elections officer in 2019 should she run for office, Grimes responded that the ethics commission was “all Republican” and that it was “attempting to try and justify their use of taxpayer dollars to have interference in this board.” She added, “No outside agency can determine how this board runs.”

This story, the second of a three-part series, was co-published with the Lexington Herald-Leader. It was originally published by ProPublica.


When W.Va. Delegate Compared LGBT to KKK, He Highlighted the History of Religious Right Prejudice



Newly elected Del. Eric Porterfield was sworn in to the West Virginia House before the start of the 2019 session. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

When West Virginia House of Delegates member Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, called the LGBT community “the modern-day version of the Ku Klux Klan” in an interview with a Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter last week, it drew condemnation not just in the state, but nationwide. But Porterfield, in fact, joined a long legacy of right-wing evangelicals who have conflated legal protections for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people with white supremacy and domestic terrorism.

The Southern Baptist Convention in 2012 resolved that “homosexual rights activists” had “misappropriated the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement” in advocating for marriage equality and other legal protections.

Bryan Fischer, former director of issues analysis for the American Family Association, has compared LGBT people to Nazis numerous times, arguing in a 2010 column that “homosexuality gave us Adolph [sic] Hitler.”

And Tony Perkins, president of the Christian conservative lobbying group the Family Research Council, argued in a 2018 column on the organization’s website that marriage equality was really “about obliterating every moral and cultural boundary humans have ever known.”

“The LGBTQ is suppressing the freedom of people that disagree with them and forcing their ideology,” Porterfield told Rachel Anderson, a reporter and weekend anchor with the Bluefield, West Virginia, TV station WVVA, in a separate interview.  

“If they do not get their way, they cause chaos, apply pressure, intimidate, internet stalk,” he added. “They’re the most evil-spreading and hate-filled group in this country.”

Porterfield’s comments came after a controversial rant in a legislative committee meeting, during which lawmakers were debating a bill to add protections to the state’s housing and employment nondiscrimination law for sexual orientation and gender identity.

His broader claim that “the LGBTQ” are harming America by lobbying for equal protections under the law is not new either. It’s right out of the right-wing evangelical playbook, according to Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and historian whose work studying the religious right has been recognized with numerous accolades, including an Emmy nomination for script-writing and hosting the PBS documentary based on his book, “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.

Balmer said that right-wing evangelical leaders often rely on a “rhetoric of victimization” to make themselves seem persecuted in the face of changing social norms.

“That, by the way, is one of the reasons that they embrace Trump…he’s very good at this rhetoric of victimization,” Balmer said. “What this guy in West Virginia is saying is just a variant on this. ‘We’re the ones who are under siege, we’re the ones who have some sort of grievance that needs to be redressed.’”

But even given this context, Porterfield’s comparison of LGBT people with the KKK is a strange one, given the religious right’s origins. Although many believe abortion had a central role in pushing evangelical leaders toward politics, pro-life rhetoric did not become important in those circles until well past the 1970s.

In a Politico Magazine piece, Balmer traces the beginnings of the evangelical right’s political efforts to a court case in the late 1960s, when a group of Black parents in Holmes, Mississippi, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department in hopes of preventing segregated private K-12 schools from receiving full tax-exempt status. As the Internal Revenue Status targeted the tax exempt status of private, segregated primary and secondary schools, leaders like the late Jerry Falwell became involved in the fight. “In some states it’s easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school,” Falwell is quoted as saying at the time in an article in The Nation exploring the preacher’s racist roots.

The racism exhibited by leaders of the evangelical right at the time was not limited to their efforts to preserve whites-only Christian academies. Tony Perkins, the aforementioned president of the Family Research Council, had no problem associating with the KKK when he served in Louisiana’s House of Representatives. He even spent time with David Duke, a former grand wizard for the white supremacist hate group.

“The religious right has its roots in racism, I’m sorry to say,” Balmer said. “So for this guy to kind of call on that trope is both ironic, but also fully compatible with the history of this movement.”

Heather Warren, a University of Virginia religion professor who studies American religious history, agreed with Balmer, adding that racism and Christianity were intertwined not just in evangelical movements, but in “hardcore KKK ideology.” Warren, who is also an Episcopal priest, said that in the 1950s and ‘60s, leaders in the religious right were fighting not to make America great again, but “to keep America Christian.”

“And Christian and white and democracy all went together,” she said. “They were all interchangeable. There was this way that it all added up to a white supremacy.”

So laws and ordinances banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity are a direct affront to democracy, Warren said, and an attack on democracy is synonymous with an attack on white Christianity and America, under this belief system.

“When Falwell was alive and writing, usually in his catalogue of phenomena and types of people who were eroding America and eroding American democracy, he’d often start off with homosexuals at the top of his list,” Warren said. “Feminists were close behind.”

It’s a convenient leap to make if you want to demonize the continued push for increased LGBT rights, which Porterfield seems to think are somehow wholly separate from the gay community. He clarified in his interview with Anderson that his original statement was an “anti-LGBTQ sentiment,” not an “anti-gay sentiment.”

Even before taking office, Porterfield made his positions on issues that directly impact the LGBT community clear. In a December interview, Porter condemned efforts to outlaw conversion therapy in West Virginia, a practice opposed by every major credible psychology or psychiatry organization. Porterfield called efforts to ban the practice “bigoted and discriminatory” and that the counseling practice should be protected as free speech.

Historically, conversion therapy methods have relied on tactics like castration, induced vomiting and electroshock therapy to “cure” LGBT people. While the unscientific and unethical therapeutic method has been banned or condemned in a number of states, including California and Washington State, New York is the only Appalachian state so far to outlaw it.

Porterfield’s comments, both before taking office and since, make it clear that he believes being criticized for bigotry is on par with a legacy of racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic violence rooted in white supremacy and white Christianity. By making this comparison, he’s dismissing that Black and LGBT Americans have faced far worse than a few mean comments online.

The KKK was infamous for carrying out lynchings against Black Americans, a hate crime that often involves hanging but often also can include being burned alive or shot multiple times. The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard’s, a gay college student from Wyoming who was beaten and left to die tied to a fencepost,is sometimes considered a lynching, and the history of lynching was painfully brought up for many Black LGBT Americans recently when Jussie Smollett, a Black gay actor, was assaulted by two men in Chicago who put a noose around his neck.

There’s hope, however, for Balmer in the form of younger white evangelicals who might not share Porterfield’s extreme beliefs.

“Not that his views are unique, and not that his vitriol is unique,” Balmer said. “But I think it’s changing, and much of it is generational.”

Balmer says young evangelicals are already showing they’re more concerned about issues like ending widespread hunger and poverty than whether someone is trans or attracted to a person of the same gender. Hopefully, he says, one day these young people will refuse to back other politicians like Porterfield and focus their efforts on finding solutions for struggling communities.

Tiffany Stevens (@tiffanymstevens) is an independent journalist living in Southwest Virginia. Their work focuses on the media, the LGBT community and Appalachia.

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West Virginia Lawmaker Faces Calls To Resign After Likening LGBTQ People To KKK, ‘Terrorist Group’



West Virginia House of Delegates member Eric Porterfield during a recent floor session. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

This story was originally published by the Huffington Post and is used here  with permission.

West Virginia lawmaker Eric Porterfield is facing calls to resign after a string of homophobic remarks, such as likening the LGBTQ community to the Ku Klux Klan and saying he would “see if [his kids] can swim” if they came out as gay.

Porterfield (R-Mercer), who is a born-again Baptist missionary and is blind, was elected to the state’s House of Delegates in November. He has continued to stand by his bigoted views, accusing the LGBTQ community of being a “terrorist group” that has “no care for diversity of thought.”

“The LGBTQ is a modern-day version of the Ku Klux Klan, without wearing hoods with their antics of hate,” Porterfield told a reporter with the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Friday. 

West Virginia House of Delegates member Eric Porterfield during a recent floor session. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

He reportedly used the slur “faggot” in a committee meeting on Wednesday amid discussions over a proposed amendment that would restrict anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. That amendment failed to pass, the Gazette-Mail reported.

Porterfield, responding to backlash against his comments on Saturday, repeated his views to Bluefield station WVVA, adding that if his young son or daughter came out to him as gay, he would “see if she can swim … then I’d see if he can swim.”

The West Virginia Democratic Party on Friday called for Porterfield’s resignation.

“West Virginia has no room for someone who expresses such hate. Let alone room for him to hold a public office where he is supposed to represent the people of West Virginia,” WVDP Chairwoman Belinda Biafore said in a statement.

“His hate-filled remarks and actions speak volumes and so does the Republican Party’s silence. The Republican majority’s leadership needs to condemn these actions. Their silence is complicit and the people of West Virginia deserve better,” she added.

Among the Republicans publicly condemning Porterfield’s words was Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett, who characterized the homophobic comments as contrary to what the Bible teaches.

“As a Commissioner within Mercer County, I do not condone, nor accept this behavior of anyone, let alone an elected official. Likewise, this form of antics in representation of my county is not inclusive to the people within,” Puckett said in a Facebook post.

Delegate John Shott (R-Mercer) also distanced himself from Porterfield’s views, calling them “much too extreme.” 

“I don’t accept his categorization of that group nor do I think it’s productive to call anyone names when you are trying to advance the goals of the party. It’s not a productive approach to solving problems,” he told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. He added that Porterfield should learn to be “[discreet] with his words.”

Porterfield did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

This story was originally published by the Huffington Post and is used here  with permission.

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Fact-check: Has Unemployment in W.Va. Fallen Under GOP Governor?



West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice holds a service dog onstage after announcing Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., that he will seek re-election in 2020. Photo: John Raby, AP Photo.

Unemployment has fallen across the country in recent years. But the West Virginia Democratic Party said in a recent tweet that it hasn’t fallen on Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s watch.

In a Jan. 9 tweet, the state party wrote, “FACT: Unemployment rate has not decreased since @WVGovernor took office. #wvpol #WVSOTS19″

Is that correct? We decided to check it out. (We reached out to a party representative but did not receive a response.)

Justice, elected as a Democrat in 2016, took office on Jan. 16, 2017. That month, the unemployment rate in West Virginia was 5.3 percent.

Justice became a Republican on Aug. 3, 2017. That month, the state unemployment rate stood at 5.2 percent.

And today? In the most recent month available, December 2018, the unemployment rate in West Virginia was 5.1 percent.

Is that a dramatic drop? No. But unlike what the tweet says, it is a decline.

It’s worth noting a limitation in the data, said Brian Lego, a research assistant professor at West Virginia University. Because West Virginia’s population is small, he said, the margin of error for the survey used to track the unemployment rate is big enough to produce uncertainty about small changes in the data, like those seen during Justice’s tenure.

“The change is statistically insignificant,” Lego said.

He added that regular revisions by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which collects the data, could produce small changes that affect the comparison.Our ruling

The West Virginia Democratic Party tweeted, “FACT: Unemployment rate has not decreased since @WVGovernor took office.”

The state unemployment rate did, in fact, decline from 5.3 percent to 5.1 percent on Justice’s watch. That said, it was an exceedingly narrow decline — in fact, economists say that the margin of error for the survey in question leaves in doubt how big the decline was.

We rate the statement Mostly False.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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