Dem vs Dem: A party divided - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

Dem vs Dem: A party divided

Posted: Updated:

As Democratic Lawmakers in West Virginia Battle for Party Position and Struggle To Maintain Dominance, Some Say the Democrats Are Performing Damage Control

At 12:37 p.m. Feb. 11, a spark was ignited. 

That spark came in the form of 48 yeas and 48 nays in red and green lit up across the electronic voting board in the chamber of the House of Delegates.

In the days that followed, anyone sitting in the chamber during floor sessions was witness to the strong and defensive remarks made by several names associated with the smoking gun of the no votes.

What was the catalyst?

The split vote was on a motion to discharge the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, or House Bill 2364, from its committee. By voting yea, members voted to bring the bill to the full House for an immediate discussion. Those who voted to not discharge the bill from committee ensured there was no discussion on the floor. 

The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act would prohibit an abortion after 20 weeks unless the physician deemed it necessary to "avert (the mother's) death or to avert serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function, not including psychological or emotional conditions."

Before an abortion could be performed based on those circumstances, the post-fertilization age would have to be determined, and a physician or medical provider who performed an abortion based on those circumstances would be required to report the abortion to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. Based on legislative findings, "pain receptors … are present no later than 16 weeks after fertilization, and nerves link these receptors to the brain's thalamus and subcortical plate by no later than twenty weeks," hence the 20-week time frame.

The proposed bill, which was introduced Jan. 9, would create criminal penalties for anyone who performed an abortion after 20 weeks if it was not done to "avert (the mother's) death or to avert serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function." Civil remedies would also be created, as well as the guarantee of protection of privacy in court proceedings.

The original sponsors of the bill include Delegates David Perry, D-Fayette, Doug Reynolds, D-Cabell, Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, John Pino, D-Fayette and Margaret Donaldson Smith, D-Lewis.

All the sponsors, except for Sumner, voted nay, preventing discussion of the bill in the full House. And after the vote, delegates whose names were tied to nay votes received backlash from conservative groups and community members who saw the failure to bring the subject to the floor for discussion as a failure to act.

‘Respecting the process'

What was the reason for voting to not bring the bill to the floor for discussion? 

Every person who voted nay said the same thing — not wanting to break from the committee process.

Perry, one of the sponsors of the bill, said he voted against a procedural motion, not against the bill.

"What I voted against was the motion to discharge it from the committee," he said. "I believe in the committee process. The committee process has always worked and I voted against the procedural motion to discharge it from the committee."

Delegates Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, and Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, stated on their Facebook pages that they considered themselves pro-life lawmakers, but they also voted against bringing the bill to the floor due to "respecting the committee process."

However, the proposed bill came back again as House Bill 4588 and was referenced to the House Health and Human Resource Committee Feb. 17, where it was discharged to the Judiciary Committee.

Some observers noted the majority of delegates who voted nay, due to not breaking from the committee process, also voted for House Resolution 2, the major rules change about the House Calendar, at the beginning of the session. Many have argued that only after the outcry of the vote was the bill taken up in the Health and Human Resources Committee.

Delegate Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, said he viewed the placement of the proposed legislation on the agenda merely as a "butt-covering move," since a vote was taken to move the bill in committee after the considerable backlash, not before.

Simmering issues

While the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act ignited the fire, some say it was only a matter of time before internal rifts made their way to the surface.

On Feb. 12, the Democratic legislators caucused for about three hours in the House chamber. While the caucus happened behind closed doors, some reported it became quite heated. Tension among Democratic lawmakers did not escape the notice of House doorkeepers, who referred to the situation as "not being this bad in years."

Delegate Richard Iaquinta, D-Harrison, said there are a majority of Democrats who feel strongly about particular issues.

"We have the majority of Democrats and they all feel strongly, very strongly, about some positions," he said. "And they want the other members in the Democratic Party to know exactly where they stand. They do express themselves."

Iaquinta said expressing a position is good and helps gauge how to approach an individual who might not express the same position.

Larry Puccio, West Virginia Democratic Party chairman, said it is normal to air differences in the confines of the caucus and that there is a difference between disagreeing and arguing.

"It's normal to air concerns in (the caucus) room," he said. 

When it comes to whether there was arguing rather than disagreement, Puccio said he couldn't confirm nor deny the claims, given that he wasn't in the room.

‘Dixiecrat' vs. Washington Democrat

Another theory of the causes for increased tension within Democratic legislators is what Conrad Lucas, West Virginia Republican Party chairman, described as the "redefining of the Democratic party."

When it comes to politics, Lucas said the Mountain State is usually behind the times.

"West Virginia is where the Deep South was 10 to 15 years ago," he said.

Within that time frame, the conservative Democrat, or "Dixiecrat," has become further and further removed than the Washington Democrat, which creates a faction within Democrats of a traditionally conservative state.

When asked if the Mountain State is conservative, most people answer yes. When asked if traditional values are held in high regard, most people will answer yes again.

Some of the differences between conservative "West Virginia Democrats" and Washington Democrats were outlined in an October 2013 article in the Washington Post.

In the article, former governor Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he had "never seen more people pushed away from their traditional Democratic roots or their voting habits than in the last six or seven years."

It has been widely speculated that the Republican Party in West Virginia, currently in the House minority, soon may rise to the majority.

Issues that strain Democratic relationships with those of West Virginians include guns, immigration, coal and abortion.

While Washington Democrats typically clash with West Virginia conservatives on those issues, conservative West Virginia Democrats have choices to make when it comes time to cast the "yeas" and "nays."

Recent regulations that affect the coal industry and that are pushed by President Barack Obama and backed by Washington Democrats have not helped ease the relationship between West Virginia and Washington.

More evidence of in-party conflict

On Feb. 11, the divide between the conservative "Dixiecrat" and Washington Democrat was brought into a sharp and rather abrupt focus through the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protect ion Act vote.

All but one of the sponsors of the proposed legislation and every Democrat, except two — Delegates Jeff Eldridge, D-Lincoln, and Ricky Moye, D-Raleigh — voted to not bring the bill to the floor for discussion.

While every "nay" was made in objection to discharging the bill from its committee, Wanda Franz, president for West Virginians for Life, said the bill was introduced last year, with no "interest in taking it up" from lawmakers.

What frustrated many of those who criticized the casting of the votes was the fact that actions aren't lining up with words.

According to John Carey, legislative coordinator for West Virginians for Life, legislators who claim to be pro-life have had plenty of time to change the fact that West Virginia is one of only nine states, along with the District of Columbia, where no restrictions on abortion exist. Currently, it is legal to abort a baby at full term. 

Carey said "in light of the fact that West Virginia hasn't done anything in three years to defend the rights of the unborn,"  legislators are out of sync with the nation and West Virginia. For three consecutive years, Carey said,  pro-life organizations have pushed for pro-life legislation.

"You can describe this as a procedural vote, but after three years of not doing anything, it's meaningless," he said.

Why have the discharge procedure?

Carey went on to say that "we called out (for House leadership) to lead" and that when they didn't, the discharge procedure allowed for the ability and right to stand up for the people, something the members of the House leadership team failed to do.

Carey said he made several attempts to contact Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee. All have failed and is repetitive of last year, he said

Franz simply wants actions to reflect the values legislators claim to have and said the "nay" votes by those claiming to be "pro-life legislators" was not consistent with the desire to have the bill passed.

"The vote does not reflect the position they claim to hold," she said. "We'd like to see their actions actually reflect their (expressed) opinion."

Franz also viewed the discharge process as a way to move the bill out of committee for discussion and a vote. 

Delegate Lynwood "Woody" Ireland, R-Ritchie, said that by bringing the proposed legislation to the floor for a vote, at least a discussion would be had.