Electoral board nominees withdrawn by GOP in Buckingham

Published 1:51 pm Monday, May 22, 2023

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DILLWYN – The Buckingham County Electoral Board remains at two members, as the latest attempt to fill the third seat was scrapped this week. On Sunday, May 21, Buckingham County Republican Party chairperson Ramona Christian sent a letter to Judge Donald Blessing, withdrawing two of the set of three names she had given the week before. Those names were former interim registrar Luis Gutierrez and his wife Tambra Riggs. 

“At the time of my nominations letter, I was unaware of most of the issues concerning Mr. Gutierrez,” Christian wrote to Judge Blessing. “I was aware that he had been fired. He told me that it was a misunderstanding between him and Dr. Cerwinski.” 

Christian is referring to what took place on Tuesday, May 9, when by a 2-0 vote, the electoral board members fired Gutierrez. At the time Cerwinski said he was let go because of “some falsification on his original application regarding jobs.”

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Gutierrez denied the claim, saying after the closed session that Cerwinski knew everything about where he had worked previously. He refused to resign because he saw that as an admission of guilt and Gutierrez said he did nothing wrong. Since then, the electoral board had requested and received what the court document says is a no trespass order and Christian’s letter labels a protective order, blocking Gutierrez and his wife from entering the registrar’s office unless a police officer is present and they make an appointment. That order was signed off on May 15. 

“If I had been aware of any of these concerns, I would have never presented you with these names,” Christian wrote to the judge. 

In the email, Christian explained her father-in-law passed away a little over a week ago and since then, she’s been helping take care of her mother-in-law, helping get things ready for her son’s wedding next week and also juggling both a debate and two conventions to choose a party candidate for House District 56 and State Senate District 10. 

“I have been just a tiny bit busy and I have left the registrar issues to the electoral board, where they should be handled,” Christian told The Herald

The Herald reached out to ask if Riggs and Gutierrez wanted to give a statement and the response was not at this time. 

How electoral board selections work 

The way electoral board nominations work in Virginia is pretty simple. A political party selects no fewer than three candidates for the seat. That list is turned over to the circuit court judge, who chooses one of the candidates for the post. The majority on the board varies, depending on who the governor is.

The electoral board majority matches the governor’s party, which is why Buckingham currently has two seats for Republicans and one for Democrats. Dr. Karen Cerwinski holds one of the Republican seats. Woody Hanes currently holds the Democratic seat on the board. The third seat on the board is vacant, previously held by Republican Sandy Banks-Bertwell, who stepped down in April. 

What’s unique about this nomination round is that after receiving the list of Republican candidates, including Gutierrez, Riggs and a third candidate, Jose Breland, the judge was concerned enough to call a hearing in the case, rather than choose one of the three. He sent out notices, requiring Gutierrez and Riggs to be in court on Wednesday, May 24, along with Christian. Once Gutierrez and Riggs’ nominations were withdrawn, Judge Blessing canceled the hearing. 

“The chairperson of the Buckingham County Republican Party has requested additional time for the submission of the three recommendations as required by law,” Judge Blessing wrote in his latest order. “This matter is continued generally on the docket of this Court to allow for the submission of said recommendations.” 

Christian said she expects to have a list of names ready to submit within the next week. 

Lawsuit moves forward

To be clear, while this court hearing was dismissed, the lawsuit against the electoral board is still active. Buckingham County Board of Supervisors member Jordan Miles filed a lawsuit against the board, board chair Dr. Karen Cerwinski and the registrar’s office earlier this month, arguing they had violated state law in multiple ways. That includes failing to inform the public when meetings took place, making decisions without the needed quorum of members present and failing to keep public records. Miles believed the public records he requested would show all of that was taking place. To date, those record requests have not been 100% fulfilled. 

First, he wants the electoral board to provide all of the documents he requested back in early April. Second, he’s asking the judge to sanction the electoral board and registrar’s office, meaning they or Buckingham County would be required to pay his attorney’s fees and costs for the lawsuit.

Third, he’s asking the judge to grant “other and further relief as may be appropriate, both to remedy the FOIA violation and to discourage further FOIA violations by the registrar, the electoral board and any other agency in Buckingham County.” 

The electoral board, represented by Richmond-based attorney Will Prince, said they would gladly provide the requested information, but they just needed more time. Both sides in the case say they hope to work things out before a second hearing. The case is expected to go back to court on Tuesday, June 6, beginning at 10 a.m.

Between the nomination issues and his FOIA requests, Miles said it’s time for the electoral board to stop wasting everyone’s time. 

“They’re going to continue to see poll workers who don’t want to work in November, people who don’t have any credit or any faith in the electoral board or the elections office,” Miles said. “Now they’ve withdrawn nominees, wasting the clerk’s time and the judge’s time. The best thing they can do is find three people that understand elections and are able to serve in a non-partisan manner. Make the electoral board whole, quit wasting people’s time and start regaining the trust of the poll workers and the people.”