CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Republicans will soon have to welcome back a lawmaker who resigned in the heat of his reelection campaign and then jumped back into the race after spending most of his first term embroiled in scandals over discriminatory remarks about gay people and Muslims.
John Mandt Jr.’s narrow comeback win in the November election has left Republican leaders in a bind. When Mandt resigned as a state delegate on Oct. 4, Republican House Speaker Roger Hanshaw said bigotry had no place in the state.
But many other GOP politicians stood silent, and voters in Huntington, by a margin of just 71 votes, decided to send him back to Charleston.
Now Mandt has only kind words for the Speaker who called him out, praising Hanshaw as “a great man and a phenomenal leader.”
“I’m looking forward to continuing my hard work in the legislature and along with my colleagues,” Mandt said in an email to The Associated Press.
Hanshaw’s office didn’t respond to AP questions about Mandt, who appears unlikely to see political repercussions.
Other Republicans also might be able to avoid taking stands on Mandt’s rhetoric, if only because Republicans now have a stronger statehouse majority, buoyed by President Donald Trump’s sky-high popularity in the state. The GOP picked up 20 more seats, opening the door for more conservative measures such as pushing for charter schools and lowering income and business taxes, although the latter may be stymied by the pandemic’s crushing impact on state revenues. The legislature convenes in early January.
Fairness West Virginia, an LGBT advocacy group, is hoping to make progress on a proposal to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and in the public sphere. Similar protections exist in 22 states and the District of Columbia.
Mandt, who calls himself “Pro-God,” has opposed the measure and tangled with advocates for the LGBT community, which he labeled “the alphabet hate group.”
But the Fairness Act has picked up more support since Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo co-introduced it last year. Republican Gov. Jim Justice said in a candidates’ debate this year that he would sign the bill if it passes.
“The truth is, LGBTQ people are still supported by the vast majority of voters in this state,” said Andrew Schneider, director of Fairness West Virginia.
He cited the fate of Del. Eric Porterfield, who was widely condemned for implying he would drown his own children if they were gay, and then came in last in his June Republican primary. “We’re long past the days when those views can be openly embraced,” Schneider said.
Mandt’s first two-year term representing the Cabell County area was marked by controversies.
In 2019, he attacked on Facebook a vigil honoring the victims of a mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand. “Anything Muslim is going to be associated with Democrats. It’s better to stay away than be associated with them,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
Hundreds denounced his comments in a petition calling on Marshall University to cut ties with the restaurant Mandt owns, Stewart’s Original Hot Dogs, and the food contractor soon ended a decades-long football game day tradition.
“When people get badgered or you are called a bigot, racist or a hater, I am none of those things but those things are said to try and discourage you from what you are doing,” he told WV Metro News at the time.
Screenshots of Mandt using a gay slur in a Facebook Messenger group chat in early October prompted his resignation. He first claimed his comments were fabricated, then said he meant them as a joke.
“He tried to downplay the incident, because he knew that people in his district just want him to treat people fairly,” said Schneider. He figures Mandt won despite his rhetoric, as one of many down-ballot candidates swept along by Trump’s popularity.
Mandt said when resigning that he would end his campaign. Hanshaw said it was “the best course of action” for Mandt’s family and business. But within a day, he changed his mind, and made a passive-voice apology for his anti-gay slurs and disparaging remarks.
“I do apologize if anything was put out there that hurt any of you watching this right now,” Mandt told news channel WSAZ. But he said his social media posts shouldn’t preclude him from serving if he won.
He returned to the campaign trail days later and took third place among six candidates in a pick-three contest for 16th District seats.
Asked to comment on Mandt’s come-from-resignation victory, state GOP chairwoman Melody Potter wrote in a brief email that “The voters of the 16th spoke on November 3rd.”