By Ron Gregory
CHARLESTON - Gone but clearly not forgotten.
That appeared to be the status of “Big Jim” Hatfield’s bid for Mingo County commissioner on Wednesday. The state election commission, meeting at the state Capitol, effectively decided Hatfield is off the November ballot for county commission. They will not, however, allow the Mingo Democrat Executive Committee to name a replacement candidate.
This week, Hatfield announced he was withdrawing as a commission candidate due to health issues. He said he wanted to remain county clerk.
While the election commissioners said they did not doubt Hatfield’s sincerity, they described him Wednesday as a “Trojan Horse” candidate.
“He effectively won two offices, or tried to, in May,” said one member by phone. “He wanted to continue to control the county clerk office, run for the nomination for county commissioner and win it. Then, when he saw his political faction won control of the county (Democrat) committee, he thought he could pull out and let his friends in the party replace him. I have trouble with that.”
Commission Chairman Gary Collias also expressed concern about the timing of Hatfield’s withdrawal. At the outset of the discussion, though, Collias asked attorney Tim Leach if Hatfield had an “absolute right” to withdraw. Leach confirmed that he did. They cited an attorney general’s opinion regarding the matter.
Collias then explained that the commission would move forward “with the understanding that he (Hatfield) has withdrawn.”
Hatfield had submitted a doctor’s statement saying the drive from his home in Gilbert to Williamson presented a problem for his patient. Hatfield maintained he wants to move to Williamson and continue to serve as clerk. He said he could not serve as commissioner because his new residence would be in a magisterial district already represented on the county commission. State law prohibits more than one commissioner from representing any one magisterial district.
But election commissioners, including Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, said Hatfield was wrong about that as well.
“He had to live in his district (Stafford District) when he filed,” one said. “Then, he’s free to move anywhere in the county and serve.”
Collias said he wondered how Hatfield “suddenly decided he needed to move to Williamson. He said these health problems started more than 30 years ago.
“So he did not know in January or May of 2014 that his health was deteriorating?” he asked.
Member Robert Rupp, participating by phone, said Hatfield’s actions “essentially mean the Democrat position has to be left open.” All members agreed that they prefer a process where Mingo voters select the next county commissioner without the “executive committee making its pick.”
Member Vincent Card said, “I am in agreement with everyone else. He had this health problem for 30 or 40 years. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide you have to do something this drastic (pulling off the ballot).”
Collias asked if any committee member wished to make a motion to declare that Hatfield’s withdrawal constituted “extenuating personal circumstances.” After all agreed that they did not think it did, no motion was offered. The net effect, the chairman said, was that the Democrats will not be able to nominate someone. Since no Republican filed in the primary, that party will not field a candidate either, he said.
That means the county commission ballot will likely be vacant for the general election, Collias explained,. The deadline for someone to appear as an independent or other party candidate is too close to be met, said Tennant’s attorney Leach. To be placed on the ballot, a candidate would have to be registered to represent some political party other than Democrat or Republican and secure 86 signatures of valid registered voters by the time the county clerk’s office closes Friday, Aug. 1, he said. That means Mingo voters will likely have to select from those who file as legal write-in candidates before the Sept. 16 deadline.
The only Mingo Countians who cannot run for the vacant seat are those who lost in the May primary for any office, Leach said. They are precluded from running under the “poor loser” provision of state law, Leach said after the meeting.