Buckingham GOP withdraws fired registrar’s nomination for elections board
The leader of the Buckingham County Republican Committee has withdrawn the county’s recently fired interim registrar and his wife from the party’s list of three nominees for a vacant Republican position on the local elections board, a move that prompted a local judge to postpone an upcoming hearing on the matter.
In an email to the judge sent Sunday, May 21 — two days after The Virginia Mercury published a story revealing the latest list of nominees the local GOP had submitted for the Buckingham Electoral Board — Buckingham GOP Chairwoman Ramona Christian claimed she had been “unaware of most of the issues” swirling around former county registrar Luis Gutierrez when she sent her nomination letter on May 10, the day after Gutierrez was fired at a public meeting. Christian told Buckingham Circuit Court Judge Donald Blessing she was withdrawing Gutierrez’s nomination along with the nomination of his wife, Tambra Riggs-Gutierrez.
Christian acknowledged she was aware Gutierrez had been fired before she nominated him and his wife to the board that fired him and will soon pick his replacement. But Christian told the judge she recently learned the couple was legally prohibited from entering the county election office because a “protective order” had been taken out against them. Gutierrez disputed that characterization, saying it was a “no trespass order.”
The Buckingham Sheriff’s Office later confirmed Gutierrez was correct, explaining the order was obtained at the sheriff’s office, not a court, and only prevented the couple from going to the registrar’s office “without an appointment and escort from a deputy.”
Protective orders are a legal term of art that implies threatening behavior has occurred, while trespassing notices are a less serious step that simply restricts someone’s access to a building or property. It’s unclear why Christian referred to a “protective order” in her email to the judge.
Gutierrez, a Republican, had served as the county’s interim registrar for almost a month before he was fired by the Electoral Board on May 9 after an outcry from Buckingham citizens who interacted with him.
The local GOP’s decision to immediately nominate Gutierriez to a new election oversight job appeared to indicate the party was rallying around him. In addition to numerous residents saying he was temperamentally unsuitable for the job, Gutierrez had expressed support for former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims the 2020 election was tainted by fraud and was sued by a Democratic supervisor just a few weeks into his tenure for allegedly violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act. After the initial attempt to double down on Gutierrez remaining involved with the election office, Republicans now seem to be changing course.
Though the Buckingham saga is largely a local political feud, it spotlights the degree to which Virginia law gives often hyperpartisan local party committees an important role in picking who oversees election offices that are meant to be nonpartisan. Last year, the Virginia State Board of Elections sent a letter to Republican and Democratic party officials and the court system asking all involved to do a better job of vetting picks for local Electoral Boards.
According to state law, political parties submit three nominees to fill seats on every three-person city and county electoral board, and local judges then make the final appointments from those nominees. It’s unclear what would happen if a judge finds none of a party’s three nominees acceptable, and the latest move in Buckingham appears to have avoided that potential outcome.
In the local GOP’s emailed explanation, which the judge attached to an order postponing a hearing he had set for Wednesday, Christian said she withdrew the nominees after receiving new information from Republican Electoral Board Member Karen Cerwinski, a local chiropractor.
“I spoke with Dr. Cerwinski on Friday, May 19th, 2023 and she informed me that there was a protective order against Mr. and Mrs. Gutierrez to prevent them from entering the registrar’s office,” Christian wrote. “If I had been aware of any of these concerns, I would have never presented you with these names.”
Maggie Snoddy, a local Democratic Party official who says Republicans have thrown the local election office into turmoil by driving the county’s entire election staff to quit earlier this year, said she didn’t believe Christian’s claim that she wasn’t aware of the full extent of the controversy surrounding Gutierrez.
“She was well aware of his behavior in that office,” Snoddy said in a May 22 phone interview. “I don’t believe that for one second. She’s covering her tracks.”
Buckingham election officials didn’t respond on May 22 to the Mercury’s requests for clarity on the nature of the order restricting Gutierrez’s access to the office. The sheriff’s office provided additional information on May 24.
Cerwinski, who voted to fire Gutierrez, was nominated to the Electoral Board by Christian in February to fill the remaining term of a prior Republican member who had resigned. In that nomination letter, Cerwinski, who oversaw Gutierrez’s hiring in mid-April before she moved to cut him loose this month, was described as the local party’s “Election Integrity Officer.”
The Electoral Board’s other Republican member resigned just as Gutierrez was hired, creating the vacancy the local GOP and the court are now looking to fill.
Christian, who acknowledged she was “aware” Gutierrez had been fired just before she nominated him, also told the judge she had been spending much of her time over the last two weeks dealing with a recent death in the family.
She said she would work on submitting new names to the judge for consideration, but noted that could require her to first call a meeting of the local GOP committee.
In an order issued Monday morning, Blessing said the hearing on the issue would be postponed while the court waits to receive the local GOP’s new nominations.
After receiving Christian’s last list of nominees, Blessing issued an order adopting a more stringent policy for how political parties should make those nominations. The new rules prevent a local party chair from acting alone. The judge said the nominations must be on official party stationery signed by both the party’s presiding officer and secretary and include documentation proving the recommendations were agreed upon at an official party meeting.
Christian did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
In a phone call with the Mercury on Saturday, May 20, Gutierrez expressed frustration that information about the pending board nominations had been published, saying local Republicans had meant for the nominations to be a “strategic move” and “something to hit the Democrats by surprise.”
“Surprise attack, that’s what it was,” Gutierrez said. “It was a surprise. … We wanted to throw the Democrats off our trail for a little while.”
Christian’s official letter nominating Gutierrez made no mention of the fact that Gutierrez had recently served as the county’s registrar and had been fired for allegedly misrepresenting his job history. Gutierrez has denied that allegation and insisted he was unfairly hounded out of a job by local Democrats upset about seeing someone new in charge.
“Before this got out, we had an opportunity perhaps to convince the judge of why we did this,” he said Saturday. “And maybe the judge doesn’t even know the s— I’ve been through.”
This story was updated after publication to include new information received from the Buckingham County Sheriff’s Office.