The Big Switch

Nikki Painter, the county’s deputy elections officer, points out differences in the sample ballot. Voters registered as independents can request the GOP ballot, the Democratic ballot or take the nonpartisan ballot.

CHARLES TOWN — Dr. Seuss’s classic tale “The Sneetches” tells the story of a race of beings separated by a single distinguishing characteristic — the presence or absence of a green, five-pointed star on their abdomens.

One genus of the species has them and one genus doesn’t until along comes an inventor with a machine able to both apply and remove the belly birthmarks, resulting in no Sneetch able to tell an original star-bellied Sneetch from the plain-bellied type.

Sixty-five years after the children’s book came out, Jefferson County voters have a Sneetches story of their own in a contest for a seat on the Jefferson County Commission – with registered Democrats switching their party affiliation to independent in record numbers to support Republican Jane Tabb, who is being challenged in her bid for a third six-year term by retired Navy captain Jack Hefestay, a self-described “constitutional conservative.”

Patsy Noland, since 2017 the only Democrat on the five-member JCC, appeared to lead the charge when she switched to independent in February. The three other Republicans on the JCC all have endorsed Hefestay.

The Republican Party in West Virginia has allowed unaffiliated voters into its primary elections since 1986 when the number of Democrats far outnumbered Republicans. The Democratic Party opened its primary to unaffiliated voters in 2007.

Tabb said she appealed to independent voters because they make up about a third of the electorate in Jefferson County.

Voters who are registered as independent or unaffiliated will be able to request the ballot of their choice during the election, either a non-partisan ballot — which contains only the candidates for board of education and circuit court judges — or a Democratic or Republican ballot.

One caveat: voters will have to request the ballot they want. State law disallows poll workers from assisting voters with their ballot selection, said Deputy Elections Clerk Nikki Painter. “It’s up to the voter to say which party’s ballot they want,” she said.

On Election Day on May 8 or during the early voting period that begins today, poll workers will only point out a sign to the voter and are forbidden from providing an explanation of the options, she said.

Early voting at the Jefferson County Courthouse continues from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Mondays through Saturdays through May 5.

County Republicans have alleged Tabb is trying to “steal” the election by getting Democrats to switch parties. A Feb. 25 article on the blog site, Eastern Panhandle Conservative, calls Tabb’s “collusion” with Democrats “a deeply disturbing tactic,” aimed at “destroying the integrity” of the Republican primary.

This election is not the first time Republicans have sought to thwart party-switchers, however. In the summer of 2016, GOP party leaders complained that a number of the candidates who sought appointment to the commission following the resignation of Eric Bell had changed parties to be considered for the job.

It took an opinion from Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to quell the controversy; Morrisey concluded there was “no legal prohibition” on prospective appointees switching parties after county attorney had earlier instructed the commissioners that they needed to replace Bell, who was facing charges related to his relationship with a teenager, with a Republican.

In his six-page opinion, Morrisey, a Harpers Ferry Republican, noted that the rules were different for candidates seeking election to the commission — they must be a member of their registered party for 60 days before filing to run.

In the end, Onoszko beat out 17 other contenders for that two-year appointment, with Tabb casting the deciding vote in his favor.

Now a number of the contenders for Bell’s old seat have re-emerged to challenge Onoszko, among them Gary W. Cogle, who joined the Republican Party in July 2016, Democrat Greg Lance and Republican David Tabb, Jane Tabb’s brother-in-law. In 2016, David Tabb was a Democrat and Lance, a longtime Democrat, was briefly a Republican — having switched in June 2016.

Hefestay, who serves on both the county’s Historic Landmarks Commission and the Planning Commission, entered the race against Jane Tabb following the dust-up over a plaque mounted to the front of the county courthouse that honors Jefferson County soldiers who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The plaque was a gift presented to then-Commissioner Garland Moore in 1986 from the now-defunct Leetown chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and while the county commission voted 5-0 late last year to leave the plaque in place, both Jane Tabb and Noland later reversed their stance on the plaque — even though no follow-up motion was made to take it down.

Hefestay says he is against removing any historical markers in Jefferson County, a position echoed by JCC President Josh Compton, member Caleb Hudson and Onoszko.

Hefestaty moved to Jefferson County 12 years ago after retiring from a career in the aerospace industry. Hefestay was himself once a Democrat and even represented Colorado as a delegate to the National Democratic Party convention.

‘I am very conservative’

Jane Tabb, a lifelong Republican from Maryland, moved to Jefferson County in 1974 after finishing college and marrying into a local farm family. She raised her four children here and worked on the family farm and other family businesses before running for a seat on the JCC.

Jane Tabb acknowledges she has fallen out of favor with some of the Republican leaders in Jefferson County, but attributes that to their embrace of the tea party’s zealous anti-tax platform.

“I look at how I have dealt with the budget and I see that I am very conservative,” she said. “The tea party platform is just ‘no new taxes.’ But we are seeing declining gambling revenue and there are more calls for ambulance service. It is a very easy answer to say ‘No new taxes,’ but saying that does not solve all the problems.”

Tabb said she has become alarmed by the rightward drift of the Republican Party in Jefferson County. She said its alignment with the tea party’s anti-government, anti-tax agenda and the party’s affiliation with far-right activist groups that have sprung up over the last decade – such as We the People of West Virginia-Jefferson County, started by now-state Sen. Patricia Rucker, and the Liberty Political Action Committee begun by Stephen C. Anders and Gina Anders, formerly of Maryland, then of Shepherdstown and now living in Loudoun County, Va., have made the party almost unrecognizable to her. She calls herself a “local issues” politician with no ambition beyond the county and is relatively silent on national issues about which Hefestay regularly touts his bona fides. Hefestay is a member of the county Republican Executive Committee and has given money to the Liberty PAC. He has run on a campaign of reduced taxation and supports eliminating the countywide ambulance fee altogether.

Jane Tabb voted last year against a move by the new Republican majority that decreased the residential rate by $5.

Republicans haven’t always complained about voters making party changes ahead of elections. Ahead of the 2016 primary, 305 voters in Jefferson County switched their party affiliation and the GOP scooped up most of them — 122 voters switched to the Republican Party that year. Democrats picked up 85 voters, while 82 voters switched to independent, or unaffiliated. Of those 82, 38 had previously been Democrats; 32 of them had been Republicans.

Statewide in 2016, 7,706 voters switched from Democrat to Republican. Just 1,507 switched from Republican to Democrat. In Kanawha County alone, 784 voters changed their voter registration from Democrat to Republican, a fivefold increase over the previous election.

Many elections and party officials chalked the increase that year to the candidacy of Donald Trump, who was quickly establishing himself as the frontrunner among Republican candidates. In 2014, the Jefferson County GOP netted 11 voters ahead of that year’s primary, while Democrats registered a net loss of 12 voters. Said then-West Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore that year: “There are a lot of people who want to vote for Donald Trump.”

Democrats switching to independent has also been part of an accelerating trend in West Virginia, a solidly blue state from the time President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tackled the Great Depression until the George W. Bush-Al Gore race in 2000.

The number of independents has grown by more than 1,000 between April 2014 and February 2016.

Despite county Republicans getting chapped over Tabb inviting Democrats to switch parties to vote for her, the secretary of state’s office maintains there’s no state statute preventing it.

“Some folks might be offended by it, but it’s not a whole lot different than getting folks to vote for the first time,” explained Mike Queen, the deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Mac Warner, in an interview earlier this month. “Anyone can file one way or another to vote for or against a candidate. Nothing prevents a coordinated effort. People change their party affiliation and change it back the next day [after the election].”

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