Three nominated to fill W.Va. Senate seat vacated by Helmick

January 18, 2013|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A circuit judge and two former state senators were nominated Friday by Democratic Party leaders as candidates to replace former West Virginia State Sen. Walt Helmick, who resigned Monday to be sworn in as the state’s next Commissioner of Agriculture.

Nominated by the 15th District Senate Democratic Executive Committee were 22nd Judicial Circuit Judge Donald H. Cookman of Hampshire County and former State Sens. Thomas J. Hawse III of Hardy County and Mike Ross of Upshur County. 

The committee met Friday in Romney, W.Va.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will choose Helmick’s replacement from among those nominees.

Cookman, who was the 18-member committee’s top choice to replace Helmick, received 15 votes, according to Bill Yearout, who along with Rosalie Bernick serve as the committee members representing Berkeley County. Bernick was elected secretary for Friday’s proceedings.

Ross, who was previously elected to the Senate from Randolph County, received 12 votes and Hawse received nine votes, according to Yearout.

Ross served in the state Senate from 1993 to 2004 and Hawse served from 1989 to 1992. Cookman has served as a state trial court judge since 1993. The 22nd Judicial Circuit is comprised of Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties.

Also receiving votes from the executive committee were Lisa Amoroso of Upshur County (7) and Margaret Beckwith of Randolph County (2). 

The committee is comprised of two representatives from each of the nine counties that were part of the 15th District when Helmick was elected to a four-year term in 2010.

The 15th District was redrawn after Helmick’s election due to the 2010 census and now only includes three of the nine counties from the old district — Berkeley, Morgan and Hampshire.

The executive committee, however, was able to nominate candidates from the old district for Tomblin’s consideration in making the appointment, according to state code.

The old 15th District included all or a portion of Randolph, Upshur, Pocahontas, Pendleton, Grant, Hardy, Hampshire, Morgan and Berkeley counties. Portions of the old senate district were divided among 11th and 14th districts, respectively, when lawmakers redrew the district lines. Incumbent Democratic senators in the 11th and 14th districts stand to win re-election in 2014, Yearout said.

While about 60 percent of the voters in the newly defined 15th District are in Berkeley County, the newly appointed senator cannot come from there because state Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, was elected last fall to the other district seat. Democrats did not field a candidate last year to run against Blair, who easily defeated a Constitution Party candidate Dan Litten. 

Yearout said those supportive of Cookman see his possible appointment to the Senate an opportunity by the Democratic Party to gain a seat in the chamber with the newly created 15th district. Democrats currently hold a 25-9 advantage over Republicans, which gained three seats in the Senate in the 2012 election.

The appointment would give Cookman momentum in the 2014 election to win a full term, Yearout said.

Yearout and other Democratic leaders who support Cookman’s appointment noted his judicial background as being an asset to ongoing debate on what the state should do to address prison crowding, the county’s rising jail bills and related criminal justice issues.

Cookman, if appointed, would be the first state senator from Hampshire County since Vernon C. Whitacre served from 1983-1988, according to the West Virginia Blue Book.

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