Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Board backs work of candidates' mom

The electoral board said it had seen no evidence of improprieties by Willie Mae Kilgore.

GATE CITY - Scott County's Electoral Board gave a vote of confidence Tuesday to registrar Willie Mae Kilgore, who has been accused of having a personal interest in this year's election for governor and state delegate.

Kilgore, the mother of twin politicians Jerry and Terry Kilgore, was asked last week to step down. Kilgore should resign "to avoid the appearance of impropriety" raised by her office's involvement in this November's election, attorney Gerald Gray wrote on behalf of former newspaper publisher Rex McCarty, who is challenging Terry Kilgore for his seat in the House of Delegates. Former attorney general Jerry Kilgore is seeking the Republican nomination for governor in next week's primary. But after discussing the matter behind closed doors Tuesday, the electoral board, which oversees the registrar, said it had seen no evidence of improprieties by Willie Mae Kilgore and saw no reason to ask for her resignation.

The board "is not aware of any instances of actions that have occurred during our tenure that raise any questions about the integrity of the general registrar's office or the current electoral process," Chairman James Fred Bishop read from a statement released after the 45-minute closed session.

"Therefore, the electoral board has confidence in the current electoral process and the operations of the registrar's office."

In addition to Willie Mae Kilgore's family relationship to the two candidates, Gray also raised the issue of last year's disputed town election in Gate City. State police are investigating allegations of absentee voting abuses in that race.

Although the workings of a rural registrar and a small-town election scandal normally would not draw much attention beyond the county line, Willie Mae Kilgore's relationship to the presumed Republican candidate for governor has added an extra dimension to the controversy.

After the meeting, Kilgore said she had no intention of giving up the job she has held since 1979.

But according to McCarty, the matter is far from resolved.

McCarty noted that the board was careful to say it had seen no problems during its tenure. All three members have served for less than a year, following the resignations of the previous board that was in office at the time of the Gate City election.

Mark Jenkins, who lost the mayor's race by two votes, challenged the May 4 election in court. Among other things, Jenkins claimed that some candidates aggressively recruited absentee voters and coerced their support.

Although a three-judge panel did not cite problems with the registrar's office, it found enough improprieties to throw out the election results. A new council appointed by the judges named Jenkins mayor.

Both Jenkins and McCarty have said the registrar's office bears responsibility for what went wrong in the election. McCarty said he never expected Willie Mae Kilgore to heed his call to resign, but he made the request anyway to draw attention to what he considers a vital public issue.

"Under no circumstances am I attacking their mother," McCarty said in response to claims that the controversy has been calculated to damage the political fortunes of the Kilgore twins. "I'm simply saying the registrar isn't doing her job."

Although both McCarty and Terry Kilgore attended Tuesday's meeting, neither addressed the board.

Afterward, Terry Kilgore said he is troubled by his opponent's tactics.

"I hate that Mom's been brought into this," he said. "I think this is just more politics and posturing than anything."

If McCarty makes his mother's actions as registrar a key part of his campaign, Terry Kilgore said he's ready to respond. "We'll deal with it by saying, 'Let's talk about the issues,'" he said. "I think the voters want to hear from the candidates, not about family members and allegations that are unproven."

In last week's letter asking Kilgore to resign, Gray wrote that it's probably not unusual for a registrar to be related to a candidate, especially in the most rural areas of the state. But with two sons on the ballot and a previous election under investigation, Kilgore is in a unique position, Gray said.

Regardless of the number of close relatives they might have on the ballot, it's not illegal for a registrar or an electoral board member to remain in office during the campaign, according to Jean Jensen, secretary of the State Board of Elections in Richmond.

Although Jensen received a copy of Gray's letter, she said her office will not get involved in the matter.

"I couldn't tell you how many, but sprinkled across the state there are a number of registrars and electoral board members who have close relatives who hold public office," Jensen said. "They take an oath to conduct the duties of their office in accordance with the law."

Meanwhile, the question of whether any laws were broken during the May 2004 town elections in Gate City remains under investigation.

Botetourt County Commonwealth's Attorney Joel Branscom, who was appointed special prosecutor in the case, has said he hopes to decide sometime this summer whether to file charges.