We can be right, or happy

By Gary Abernathy - [email protected]

I completely empathize with Todd Wilkin. I once had a very similar experience.

In 2001, I was hired by the new chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party to be the executive director. The relationship between the chair and the executive director is much like the mayor and the safety and service director. The elected chair sets the tone and goals, and he hires an executive director to carry them out day-to-day.

Our first election cycle, 2002, was a big success. Republicans picked up more seats in the state legislature than any time in about 30 years.

I wrote a book in 2005 about my West Virginia experience, but here’s the short version. The 2004 election cycle was going along fine until I began to grow upset at decisions the chairman was making without consulting me, including the allocation of funds in ways I believed were improper and even in violation of campaign laws. Things got so bad that I nearly quit shortly before the election. The chairman and I barely spoke during the last two months of the campaign.

The breakdown in our relationship became well known, and many party officials began siding with me. By Election Day, we were discussing how to force the chairman’s resignation. The party staff had also become more loyal to me than to the chairman.

And then, a funny thing happened right after the election. I got fired. The chairman came to my office and told me to pack up my things and go.

But I wasn’t done fighting. I had become emotionally invested in the job. I felt the job was mine and no one else could do it as well, which is a lie we all tell ourselves at one time or another. I had plenty of allies pledging to stand with me.

After my firing, I attended meetings with committee members who were working to oust the chairman and encouraging me to hang in there. Eventually, Lora and I had to leave West Virginia and move to Dayton, Ohio, where I had been offered a job. But I returned to the Mountain State several times for more meetings, determined to make things right.

But as time moved on, so did everyone involved. Despite my firm belief that I was on the side of the angels, the fact remained that I had been a mere employee. The chairman was the one elected to be where he was. He hired me, and he could fire me, right or wrong.

In retrospect, I should have reached out and had a heart-to-heart meeting with him to see if we could move forward together. We had made a great team. I realized later that many of my supporters were using my situation as a vehicle to carry out their own grievances. But at the time, all I could think of was that I was right, he was wrong, and justice needed to be done.

I eventually returned to West Virginia as a campaign consultant for a couple more cycles. But after I finally left for good, the state GOP was just fine, enjoying many more successes, including this year. I’m proud to have been a part of it at one time.

Todd Wilkin loved his job, although it’s been clear he hasn’t been happy in it for quite a while. Todd and some others, like the city auditor and the police chief, had hoped Drew would be gone after the trial, as they had hoped he would be thrown out of office nearly a year earlier after a civil case was filed against him. But to their dismay, Drew was acquitted.

Drew did not fire Todd in retaliation for anything. If Drew wanted to do that, he could have done it at any time after the investigation began. When the trial ended with the mayor’s acquittal, the ball was in Todd’s court. But nothing seemed to be changing, which was clear to Drew, and which was made clear to everyone at the council meeting after the trial. Everyone realized these two could not proceed together for the benefit of Hillsboro, and only Drew was elected to be here.

Finally, Drew offered Todd a choice – resign and be paid through the end of the year, or be dismissed immediately. Todd refused to resign, thereby rejecting the severance package. So Drew fired him.

I heard Thursday afternoon that other city officials had somehow decided to continue Todd’s pay and benefits. That’s an interesting precedent to set, if true. The good news for all city at-will employees in Hillsboro is that if you’re ever offered a chance to resign with a severance package but turn it down, don’t worry, the city will find a way to pay you anyway.

But I sympathize with Todd. I have no idea what his plans are, but I don’t blame him if he tries for a while to regain his old job when so many are telling him they’re on his side, since he represents their latest vehicle in which to pursue their never-ending crusade against the mayor.

People are promising Todd they will stand with him. Does Drew even have the legal ability to fire you? That question was not raised when Drew fired Todd’s predecessor, because city and state law clearly assign him that right, but hey, we’re setting new precedents left and right. They’ll get council involved. Shoot, they’ll get a petition and change Hillsboro’s form of government. Why not just go completely silly in silly season? And to accomplish what – putting Todd back into the position of working for someone he doesn’t want to work for, and forcing Drew to work with him?

For good measure, the city auditor, not at all surprisingly, is suggesting that yet another lawsuit be filed against the mayor over the issue of the $500 vacant property refund. That will make the third time in court for that one, in case you’re counting.

There is a better way. But it takes time and perspective, and the willingness to let people get on with their lives. The former chairman in West Virginia who fired me (he’s now the GOP national committeeman) and I eventually repaired our relationship, getting together to talk a few years after we had both moved on. Earlier this month, I sent my former boss a message congratulating him on the election success of a family member. His reply was gracious: “This was started many years ago! Thanks for all you did to help us grow our party and produce winners.” It’s a much happier place to have old friendships repaired than to hold on to past grievances, even if the outcome wasn’t what you originally had sought.

Hopefully, sanity will prevail in Hillsboro. For anyone who loves our city, that affection can best be demonstrated by finally letting its people move on, and letting Drew get on with the improvements and changes in Hillsboro that earned him re-election last year – as difficult as it is to put aside personal feelings, personal pride, and even the firm belief that you are on the side of the angels.

We all learn to better cope with life when we embrace two axioms: the only constant is change; and, life isn’t fair. Or, as the self-help guru Albert Bernstein writes in one of his books, “Life offers a cruel choice: you can be right or happy. Not both.”

Happy is a better place, and that’s the place I wish for Todd in the years to come, if Drew’s devoted adversaries will let him go there.

Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.


By Gary Abernathy

[email protected]