Youngkin withholds correspondence in flap over GOP nomination method

Published 5:36 pm Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration is withholding records that could shed light on whether and how his office intervened in the method of selecting a Republican candidate to run for the state’s newly created 17th Senate District.

Four weeks ago, a Richmond judge ordered the state to hold a June 20 primary election to decide whether Del. Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, or Hermie Sadler of Emporia wins the nomination – finding in favor of an ousted GOP official’s lawsuit that contended Youngkin and Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, through their representatives, had unlawfully “strong-armed” the State Board of Elections into changing the race from a primary to a convention.

Five days prior to Judge Claire Cardwell’s March 29 ruling, The Smithfield Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence between Youngkin’s office and the Virginia Department of Elections or state Republican Party concerning the contested race. On March 31, the Times received a response from Youngkin’s FOIA office stating “due to staffing issues” and “ongoing inquiries,” they were invoking a provision of Virginia’s FOIA law that allows an additional seven working days when it’s “not practically possible” to provide records within the mandated five-workday window. The Times received a follow-up email from Youngkin’s FOIA office on April 11 stating the requested records were “being entirely withheld” as “working papers” and “attorney/client privilege.”

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The response did, however, acknowledge the existence of the requested correspondence, stating the volume of records withheld is “approximately six pages.”

Dawn Jones, the recently ousted chairwoman of the Suffolk Republican Committee, filed her lawsuit on March 16, naming the Department of Elections, State Board of Elections and Department of Elections Commissioner Susan Beals as defendants.

A March 9 letter from Beals to local electoral boards had listed June 20 Republican primaries for 27 Senate races, among them the 17th. On March 10, Beals issued an altered version of her letter setting Republican primaries for only 26 Senate races, the 17th no longer among them.

At a March 27 court hearing, Sadler political adviser Carey Allen testified she’d tried calling Beals twice on March 10 with no answer, and later connected with state GOP counsel Chris Marston, who told her Beals was having “a very bad day” that allegedly included pressuring by Youngkin’s chief of staff and the Attorney General’s Office. Though rules of evidence in trials typically prohibit witnesses from testifying about what another person said, Cardwell allowed the testimony over the state’s “hearsay” objection. But Allen’s testimony didn’t delve into exactly how Youngkin’s and Miyares’ representatives had allegedly pressured Beals.

The Department of Elections provided 13 documents on April 18 in response to the Times’ April 11 FOIA request for the same records. The six reported communiques from Youngkin’s office – which could have been solely between his staff and the Republican Party, rather than with the Department of Elections – were not among the records provided, though the request did produce several communiques between the Department of Elections and Republican Party.

The Department of Elections “has no responsive records” of communication with the governor’s office concerning the 17th Senate District race, Department of Elections FOIA Coordinator Terri Detrani said.

The provided records include a March 1 email from Marston to Elections Services Manager Dave Nichols informing him of “some controversy” over a request for a 17th District primary made by “a chair who was not authorized” to do so.

“Please don’t consider that a proper filing,” Marston wrote.

“We’ll make sure to pull it tomorrow morning,” Nichols responded that same evening.

State Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson then wrote to Beals on March 7 and March 9, contending “internal party dysfunction” had “manifested within the Suffolk Republican Committee” and that on Feb. 25, the party had “disbanded” the Suffolk GOP, removed Jones as its chair and installed Steve Trent in her place.

Jones’ lawsuit had contended “certain high-ranking Republican Party officials,” including the governor and attorney general, had been “working to support” one candidate over the other in the Brewer-Sadler race. Sadler had made a similar allegation to the Times on March 10 when he argued changing from a primary to a convention would have placed a Brewer supporter in charge of overseeing the vote.

Prior to Cardwell’s ruling, the Republican Party had scheduled a June 3 convention at Paul D. Camp Community College’s Franklin campus. Conventions are party-run and open only to a set number of voting delegates per locality, as opposed to primaries, which are state-run and open to all voters districtwide regardless of party affiliation. The GOP’s official convention call had listed a maximum of 315 delegates for Suffolk, the most of any of the 17th’s 10 localities, with each GOP chapter allowed one delegate per 500 votes of “Republican Party voting strength.” Suffolk also would have had the largest weighted vote, with each delegate’s ballot being worth one-fifth of one vote, or 63 out of a maximum of 182 votes districtwide. Trent – who, according to campaign finance records, gave Brewer a $500 donation in December – would have had “control over the mass meeting” at the convention, and could decide “who can vote,” Sadler said in his March 10 email.

Anderson, by written affidavit, testified at the March 27 hearing that the 17th’s Legislative District Committee – a body of all GOP chairs from the 10 localities – had voted in December to hold a convention, but revoted March 1, at which time Jones allegedly refused to recognize Trent as Suffolk’s new chairman and cast the city’s vote herself in favor of a primary. 

Cardwell, however, rejected the argument, finding that Jones, despite her ouster from the Suffolk GOP, was still chairwoman of the 17th Legislative District Committee at the time she notified the state that the 17th planned to hold a primary.

The state’s “attempt to present the myriad of intraparty politics obfuscates the actual issue,” Cardwell wrote in her March 29 ruling, finding Jones “was entitled by her position to give notice to the (state) that Senate District 17 was to determine its nomination by primary.”

Jones’ attorney, Rick Boyer, said Jones was later removed as 17th District chair at a recent meeting of party chairs in the 2nd Congressional District, which oversees locality-level GOP chapters in South Hampton Roads.

According to Anderson, Jones’ removal occurred in the last several weeks and will have “no effect” on the current election cycle, but will reflect a change in the 17th’s legislative district committee leadership for the 2024 election cycle. Legislative district committees, Anderson said, exist for a two-year period and are then reconstituted as a matter of routine.

The State Party Plan, a Republican bylaws document, empowers the current Suffolk chair to call a meeting for the stated purpose of “reconstitution” of the Suffolk GOP, Anderson said. No deadline for this to occur is specified in the Party Plan, so it is up to local Republican officials to decide how and when that process is organized.

Boyer explained that when a new committee is appointed to replace a “nonfunctioning” one,  it is considered an “interim” committee until it holds a “mass meeting” to allow the Republicans in a locality to elect a new permanent chair.

“I like Dawn’s chances among her own folks there. … My guess is the Suffolk Republicans are going to put us right back where we started with Dawn back in as chairman,” Boyer said.

Jones appealed her ouster from the Suffolk GOP chairmanship to the Republican Party’s State Central Committee on April 21. At that meeting, the committee voted by roughly a dozen-vote margin to uphold her removal as Suffolk’s chair, according to Boyer.