Democrats call it a tempest in a teapot, but the aura of scandal has attracted the attention of both state outlets and the Washington Post. Officials with the West Virginia Republican Party, after an exhaustive study, say that House Democrats have abused their franking privileges.
Franking dates back to the beginning of the Republic, well before the advent of broadcast media and the internet. Newspapers did not even really report news as much as attack those holding other political ideals. Constituents in far flung areas relied on their congressmen or legislators to send them news through the mail. Under law, legislators can send constituents mail with the understanding that it is for information, not politicking.
Republican Party chair Conrad Lucas claims that House Democrats, fearful of losing their slender majority, have sent campaign style letters to targeted voters. Specifically, 12 House Democrats mailed nearly 65,000 items to overwhelmingly Democratic recipients. Delegates David Walker (Clay), Justin Marcum (Mingo), and Nancy Guthrie (Kanawha) mailed, according to the WVGOP, 95 percent of the time or more to Democrats alone.
Interestingly, Walker sent over 8,300 pieces of mail. His district, men, women, and children, adds up to approximately 24,000 individuals. Almost 2,800 of them turned out to vote in the primary in his 33rd District.
The letters sent out include photographs of the delegates. This is highly unusual in constituent correspondence because the extra ink needed to print color photographs is cost prohibitive. Typically, the body contains a list of Democratic accomplishments and good wishes for the constituent. Since the mass mailings did not include regular GOP voters, however, the letters are seen as campaign mobilization rather than trying to inform every voter.
Democrats fired back by saying they do mail to Republicans. Delegate Don Perdue from Wayne, who sent out over 4,000 pieces himself, noted on West Virginia Metro News' Talkline that it was "much ado about nothing" because he had gotten a complaint from one Republican voter. Democrats also attacked the mailing practices of Congressman David McKinley, who has returned almost $370,000 to the US Treasury from his office budget since taking office. (Author's note: As a long time and regular 1st District voter, I can say that I have never received mail from David McKinley except in response to a specific concern.)
What makes the scandal more noteworthy is that elected officials have more free ways to reach the public than ever before. Instead of a deluge of thousands of letters into Mineral County, Delegate Gary Howell writes a regular newspaper column and puts live legislative updates on his Twitter and Facebook accounts. For no charge, the State Legislature itself puts out a comprehensive bulletin of all its activities while in session to anyone interested. This renders a specific mailed list pointless.
Republican's figures date back to the beginning of the year and analysis is not complete. Democrats may well fall back to the defense that the mailing added up to mere thousands of dollars out of millions in the state budget. First, every bit counts. The state may be on the verge of cutting the popular Courtesy Patrol, which helps stranded motorists on state highways. Budgets will get vastly tighter when Medicaid expansion costs, agreed to by Democrats, start to sink in. West Virginia cannot afford to pay for delegates' campaigns.
Second, this reflects an arrogance that has plagued state politics for a long time. Elected officials too often exploit the gray areas. Board of Public Works officials used state funds to pay for trinkets and billboards featuring their names until voters finally punished the most egregious offender, Darrel McGraw. The state deserves better.