By John Raby
A Democrat in the House of Delegates said Monday he’s switching to the Republican Party and plans to seek a state Senate seat.
“At this point, I just feel the Republican Party is best suited to take West Virginia forward,” Ryan Ferns told The Associated Press.
The switch means the House’s makeup is now 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans. A year ago, before the 2012 election, there were 35 Republicans in the 100-seat House.
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“This makes three currently elected Democrats that have changed parties to Republican in the last few months. Evan Jenkins, State Senator from Cabell County — running for Congress; Ryan Ferns, State Delegate from Wheeling — running for State Senate and Margaret Bailey, Clarksburg councilwoman and two time mayor of Clarksburg — Running for State House of Delegates, said John D. O’Neal IV, R-W.Va., 28th District, (Raleigh, Summers and Monroe.)
“Democrat voter registration is now under 51 percent in state, and dropping steadily. At current trend, West Virginia state and Raleigh County Democrat voter registration will be under 50 percent by primary election this spring,” O’Neal added.
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Ferns, 30, a two-term delegate from Ohio County, said next year he’ll seek the Senate seat currently held by Ohio County Democrat Rocky Fitzsimmons.
In June, Ferns said he had no plans to switch parties after voting for Republican Tim Armstead of Kanawha County in the race for House speaker won by Democrat Tim Miley.
Ferns said that vote was a statement of his displeasure with the way outside interests influenced the House speaker’s race.
Since then, “I’ve continued to try to work with the leadership within the House on a number of different issues and have had little success,” Ferns said. “Even when I voiced my concerns and my reasons why I think given issues are important for my district and my state, the focus is more on sticking with the (Democratic) party and maintaining party lines. That’s just never something I’m going to be comfortable with.”
Earlier this year, Ferns sided with Republicans on a proposal that would have restricted funding for abortion in the new state budget. The proposal was rejected.
Ferns said later Monday in a statement officially announcing the switch that his attempts at independent thinking “have been met with threats and retaliation by leadership within the Democratic Party.”
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Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said that while he is unable to comment on one individual’s personal experiences within the Democratic Party, he has had no such experience when voicing his opinions to fellow Democrats.
“We are a big tent, and certainly we have different views and opinions within ourselves, but there’s more agreement than disagreement,” Rahall said.
“Certainly West Virginians are independent-minded individuals who look at issues in ways that affect them personally as well as how those issues affect everyone,” Rahall said. “While W.Va. Democrats are not always in agreement with the national party, I firmly believe the foundation of the Democratic Party in our state is in agreement over values such as opposing cuts to Medicare and social security, creating jobs, investing in infrastructure, growing our economy and reducing the deficit in a fair and balanced manner.”
Concerning the decrease in the Democratic voter population, Rahall said that he believes that the population is unhappy with the government in general, not exclusively the Democratic Party.
“There is some good still left,” Rahall said of the national government.
After the House passed The Water Resources and Reform Development Act of 2013 with a vote of 417-3 just last month, Rahall insists that representatives are still able to reach across party lines and work for the common good.
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The GOP says Ferns’ switch came one day before a deadline for candidates to switch parties on voter registration forms to be legally qualified to run for legislative office.
Miley said in a statement he was disappointed and not totally surprised by Ferns’ announcement but wished him well.
During a meeting a few weeks ago with Miley and other House Democrats, Ferns “stated he would never become a Republican for reasons that I should not repeat publicly,” Miley said. “... In politics some people say one thing and do another. Delegate Ferns has now done this on multiple occasions.”
A message left with Fitzsimmons wasn’t immediately returned.
In July, Sen. Evan Jenkins of Cabell County switched to the GOP and announced his intentions to run in West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District race next year. The incumbent is Democrat Nick Rahall.
Ferns is a physical therapist and owns a therapy and fitness center in Benwood. He holds degrees in business marketing and physical therapy from Wheeling Jesuit University.
“We proudly welcome Delegate Ryan Ferns to our Republican family today,” state GOP chairman Conrad Lucas said in a statement. “Delegate Ferns had the courage to stand up for the Ohio Valley in Charleston, and the independence to take tough stands regardless of party or issue.”
In April 2012, Ferns pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge after Wheeling police said his blood-alcohol level was 0.229 percent, above the state’s legal limit of 0.08 percent. He remained on the ballot, citing an outpouring of support, and was elected to a second term last fall.