Minutes after being fired, former Buckingham County registrar spoke to attendees at an emergency meeting of the county’s Electoral Board. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)
DILLWYN – The Republican-appointed head of Buckingham County’s election office was fired in dramatic fashion Tuesday morning, one day after several residents showed up at a public meeting to say the turmoil and dysfunction surrounding the office were a growing embarrassment for their community.
Interim registrar Luis Gutierrez, a self-described proud Republican who was hired April 11 after the county’s entire election staff quit, tried to preempt the news of his own firing by being the first to leave a closed session and speak to a crowd gathered in a local community center for an emergency meeting of the Buckingham Electoral Board.
“You can all stand up and rejoice and start clapping and just go have a party,” Gutierrez said. “Because I have been terminated.”
Gutierrez said he had been asked to resign but refused to do so because that would be “admitting some sort of guilt.” He also said he apologized if he had disappointed or offended any Buckingham residents.
Republican Electoral Board Chairwoman Karen Cerwinski, who oversaw the hiring and firing of Gutierrez, told him he was “out of order” and appeared to briefly confer with two law enforcement officers about getting them to intervene in the situation. Gutierrez eventually left of his own accord.
Cerwinski said Gutierrez was terminated for “falsification” of his job application, but the firing comes after numerous residents reported unusual encounters with the man recently hired to run voter registration and elections in the rural central Virginia community of almost 17,000 people.
Buckingham County Supervisor Jordan Miles announced this week that he intends to file a lawsuit against Gutierrez over a Freedom of Information Act dispute in which Gutierrez attempted to charge him a $200 “convenience fee” for public records and sent a scathing email suggesting Miles “get a part-time job at WalMart” to afford the FOIA fees.
Virginia’s FOIA law does not allow public officials to charge extra fees beyond the actual expense of finding records and making copies.
In his public speech Tuesday, Gutierrez, who is originally from Texas and had no prior experience working in elections, told attendees he had previously worked at Fork Union Military Academy, an all-boys boarding school in nearby Fluvanna County. But he said he was terminated last year because of “problems” he discovered at the institution, saying specifically that he believed random drug tests of students were not, in fact, random. The military academy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gutierrez, who has also worked as a corrections officer, said Cerwinski was aware of his time at the military academy and “agreed” that he should leave it off his application for the Buckingham registrar job because it involved minors.
“It’s a he-said, she-said, isn’t it?” Cerwinski said when asked for a response to that claim. “I have no comment.”
Gutierrez later said he could not prove Cerwinski had instructed him to alter his job experience because it occurred in a one-on-one conversation.
Cerwkinsi said a deputy registrar will continue to keep the county’s election office running and “maintain integrity within the community.” The Electoral Board, which is missing one of its two Republican members after a series of resignations this year, will take up the process of hiring a new registrar at a future meeting.
‘A huge mess’
Gutierrez’s firing came as a relief to some Buckingham residents who say they have watched the goings-on in their election office with growing alarm about what it might mean for democracy in their county.
Under Virginia law, the party that most recently won the governor’s mansion gets an automatic majority on all 133 of Virginia’s local electoral boards, which hire and fire registrars and oversee the work of local election officials. Because Gov. Glenn Youngkin won in 2021, all electoral boards flipped to Republican majorities this year after a long stretch of Democratic control. That shift appeared to set off the feud in Buckingham that caused the entire election office to quit.
Maggie Snoddy, a local Democratic Party official, called the situation “a huge mess” and said the drama is more about basic professionalism than partisan politics.
“They’re allowed two Republicans on the board. I have no issue with that. This is about good governance and right versus wrong,” Snoddy said. “As much as they spout the law, wave the lawbook at all these meetings, they’re clueless.”
Kenda Hanuman, who described herself as an independent, said Gutierrez came in with a “new marshal in town” attitude that led to repeated clashes with people interacting with his office.
“He likes to dress up in cowboy clothes,” Hanuman said. “He’s stopped doing that since there’s been a lot of spotlight on him.”
In an interview after Tuesday’s meeting, a suit-wearing Gutierrez expressed a sharply different view, saying “truly dangerous” Democrats were upset about losing control over local election machinery and had made him feel under siege from the moment he started the job.
“They have controlled this county. Even though the county votes red, they control it,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez seemed particularly upset by an incident in which he claims a group of Democrats inappropriately gained access to election-related documents in his office. However, it’s unclear if the records involved were public or confidential, and he said he had chosen not to pursue the matter further.
Explaining that he felt he didn’t receive adequate FOIA training or legal resources from the county, Gutierrez said he believed the Republicans who put him in the job folded under pressure he had been willing to withstand. During the closed session, Gutierrez said, he called Cerwinski “a coward.”
At Monday night’s Buckingham Board of Supervisor meeting, multiple Black women said they had applied for the county’s registrar job when it was open but received no acknowledgment their applications had been received.
“It seems like equity, political rights and social inclusion are at risk here in Buckingham County,” said Cheryl White, the president of the Buckingham branch of the NAACP.
Gutierrez said he thinks one of those women will get the job next.
“The Democrats are so good at what they do. They’re going to get their way no matter what. So let’s put a Black woman in there. And if they say no to her, then the Republicans are racist. That’s their plan,” Gutierrez said, adding that he’s never expected to get a job because he’s Hispanic.
At other points in the interview, Gutierrez stated most of the people “attacking” him are women and said one of his critics suggested to him the registrar job should always go to a woman.
“Our country is dying because our men have become weak,” he said. “The result of that weakness is what you saw in there.”
Gutierrez said he’s thinking of canceling his voter registration in the county because he’s not sure his ballot will be counted.
Miles, the Buckingham County supervisor feuding with Gutierrez over FOIA, said he plans to file a lawsuit Wednesday in response to his public records requests being “bungled beyond belief.” He said many in the county seem “pleased” by the Electoral Board’s move Tuesday and the opportunity to hire someone new.
“I think now is a time where the Electoral Board can get their third Republican member sworn in and they can get to work doing one of their largest tasks,” Miles said, referring to the board’s duty to hire a competent registrar.
At Monday’s county board meeting, several supervisors said they had nothing to do with the Electoral Board’s personnel decisions but hoped things would be set right with the county election office.
“I know it’s a lot of ruckus going on in the county right now,” said Supervisor Dennis Davis Jr. “We got Republicans on this board right now. I’m one. We got Democrats on this board. And we all get along fine. And all this bickering and arguing is not between us. And I hate that a few people are destroying our county with this mess.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.