Replacement Process Has Many Scratching Their Heads

WHEELING – West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio believes either the courts or the Legislature could have a say into the appointment process for the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s seat.

As it currently stands, Gov. Joe Manchin will appoint someone to fill the vacancy left following Byrd’s death, with that person holding office until November 2012.

During the 2012 election cycle, there actually will be two races on the ballot for the Senate seat – one for the full six-year Senate term, and a second to fill the post only from the time of the November election until Congress convenes in January.

Puccio said Wednesday it’s likely the law could be changed before then.

“The courts could be asked to render an opinion because the law is ambiguous,” he said. “Or the governor may call on the Legislature to clean up the law, one way or the other.”

A call placed to Manchin’s office was not immediately returned Wednesday.

State Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a 2012 candidate for governor, called the current process of having an appointment and then a dual election in 2012 both “bizarre and absurd.”

“I can’t imagine that was the legislative intent when they passed this statute years ago. I think this needs to be addressed,” Kessler said.

“Generally, I would favor a broader reading of the law that would let the people choose a longer-term representative. But this is entirely in the governor’s hands. Only he can call us into special session.”

The Legislature is scheduled to be in session later this month, and Kessler said the issue “might be ripe for consideration” at that time.

“I expect next week I will have my staff take a look at the ambiguity in the code to see what potential solutions are available, either short term or long term. Then I will talk to the governor’s staff,” he said.

Puccio, a Fairmont native and Manchin’s former chief of staff who was selected as state party chairman Saturday, acknowledged his first days in office have been “a tough time.”

Along with getting acclimated to his new surroundings, he’s also had to deal with talk of him being a possible candidate for the Senate seat.

Puccio dismissed that thought, saying it’s too soon to be speaking of a political appointment. “Right now, I’m so focused on our senator and his family that I really don’t have any desire to talk about that,” he said. “Maybe next week.”