CHARLES TOWN – Democratic leaders are preparing to replace former state senator John Unger, a Democrat who stepped down from the West Virginia Senate last month to accept a Berkeley County Magistrate Court judge position.
A ceremony to install Unger as a magistrate judge has been scheduled for Sept. 17 at 3 p.m. at the Berkeley County Judicial Center in Martinsburg.
Judge Michael Lorensen, chief judge of the 23rd Judicial Circuit Court, tapped Unger on Aug. 10 to fill an unexpired term for a magistrate position starting Aug. 21. Berkeley County voters will select the person to serve a new four-year term for the magistrate position during the primary election on May 10, 2022.
All magistrates in West Virginia currently earn annual salaries of $60,375.
Under state law, Unger’s replacement in the West Virginia Senate must be a Democrat—a person registered to the same political party as the person being replaced—and a Berkeley County resident.
A four-member committee that Democratic voters elected in 2018 will initiate the process to fill the Senate vacancy created by Unger’s resignation.
That 16th Senate District Democratic Executive Committee’s current members are Berkeley County Clerk Virginia Sine; Martinsburg City Council member Ken Collinson; Tiffany Lawrence of Charles Town, who served three consecutive terms as a state delegate for Jefferson County from 2009 to 2015; and Danny Chiotos, an active Democratic Party member from Harpers Ferry.
“The only time they meet is in an instance like this where there is an appointment to be made,” said Leigh Koonce, chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party.
The committee’s members will select three eligible people to nominate as candidates. Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, will choose one of the three to serve the remaining time left in Unger’s senate term officially scheduled to end on noon at the start of the legislature’s general session on the Jan. 11, 2023.
Koonce said the nominating committee will schedule a meeting to consider people who declare their interest in serving in the Senate seat. He said the meeting’s date and time and the process to be considered will be advertised in the Spirit, Jefferson County’s newspaper of record.
The standard practice followed by Democratic committees for making such appointments has been to conduct a process open to the public, Koonce said. “But the structure of the committee [for the 16th Senate District] and how they run it is going to be up to those four people,” he added.
Two senators represent the 16th Senate District, formerly Unger and currently second-term Republican Patricia Rucker, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
“We’re a split county district,” Koonce explained, “so one of the two senators must be from Jefferson and one of the two senators must be from Berkeley.”
The 16th Senate District encompasses all of Jefferson County and an eastern portion of Berkeley County that includes Martinsburg. The seat Unger held is reserved by law for a Berkeley County resident. The seat Rucker holds is reserved for a Jefferson County resident.
An ordained Lutheran pastor from Martinsburg, Unger, 52, first assumed elected office in the state Senate in 1998. He previously served as senate majority leader. His most recent legislative committee assignments include positions on the Senate’s education, agriculture, workforce, finance, and health and human resources panels.