Probably the biggest Democratic primary of the year is coming up soon: the West Virginia special gubernatorial primary, on Saturday, May 14th. I felt like we weren’t getting great insight into the key players, though, from traditional media accounts, so I asked a friend who is well-versed in Mountain State politics if he’d give us a neutral primer on all five serious Dem contenders. His guest-post, for which I am very grateful, is below.
First, let’s accept as a given that all the candidates are running on a platform of more jobs, expanded energy production, and improving education in one order of priority or another. Here is a listing of the principal candidates in roughly right-to-left order on the ideological spectrum… though, based on their rapid scurrying as the primary nears, their positioning may shift a bit.
EARL RAY TOMBLIN
Tomblin is a 59-year-old veteran legislator, long-time President of the WV State Senate, and currently is acting Governor following Joe Manchin’s resignation. From Chapmanville in the southwestern corner of the state, Tomblin is pro-life and aligned with the business-friendly wing of the West Virginia Democratic Party (WVDP). Running on a platform of “more jobs… lower taxes,” Tomblin essentially offers a continuation of the Manchin Administration under new management. Tomblin draws wide support from the energy and other heavy industry, the Chamber of Commerce wing of the WVDP, and Manchin loyalists in the party apparatus at the state and county levels.
Tomblin’s supporters say as Governor he will build on Manchin’s progress in improving the business climate in West Virginia to create the jobs West Virginians need. They cite Tomblin recently forcing a cut in the state sales tax on food while keeping the state’s budget in balance and the announcement by companies like Toyota and Macys of new and expanded operations as evidence Tomblin’s approach works and illustrates his effective leadership.
Some of Tomblin’s opponents say Tomblin favors business at the expense of working people. They claim Tomblin is a Democrat in Name Only and is in the pocket of out-of-state energy interests like American Electric Power and Dominion Resources, which plunder the state’s natural resources and export the profits. Others claim as a 36-year legislator with ethical baggage, Tomblin is part of the problem, and not the solution, as his recent veto of health care measures in the state budget while retaining subsidies for gambling interests illustrate. Others argue Tomblin is too down-home to run strongly enough in the general election in the Northern and Eastern Panhandles.
Jeff Kessler is a 55-year-old trial lawyer, a four-term WV State Senator, and currently serves as interim WV Senate President while Tomblin acts as Governor. From Glen Dale in the Northern Panhandle, Kessler is pro-life, an advocate for gay rights, transparency in government reforms, and firmly in the pro-business camp of the WVDP, though he falls in the middle on labor issues. Kessler is running on a pro-business platform while highlighting his track records on ethics reforms, including the first state-level effort to regulate 527s. Kessler is endorsed by the WV Fraternal Order of Police.
Kessler’s supporters say his vision, ethical leadership, and realistic focus on creating jobs through expanding the existing energy industry are what West Virginia needs in these uncertain times. They cite his proposal to create the West Virginia Future Fund, which would divert 25% of severance tax collected on natural gas to provide tax relief for working West Virginians as well as endow efforts to diversify the state’s economy as evidence Kessler balances the needs for economic development and social needs. They argue Kessler offers a continuation of the Manchin Administration under new management without the ethical concerns and cornpone manner of Tomblin and, as a Casey-style Democrat, Kessler would be a stronger candidate in the general election in the swing regions. As a centrist, they argue, Kessler will be able to unite the bickering factions within the WVDP.
Some of his opponents say Kessler is just more of the same old Extraction Industry politics of exploit the land and export the profits. They say his strong support for expanded Marcellus Shale drilling involves needless environmental damage while only diverting a small portion of state revenues collected to public use. Others say the ambiguity inherent in his balanced stance between the interests of business and labor indicates a lack of depth and intensity to his commitments. Some argue Kessler’s abandonment of his Chamber of Commerce wing allies to emerge as interim WV Senate President show he is a typical ambitious career politician who will sacrifice principle for expediency.
John Perdue is a 60-year-old former WV Department of Agriculture employee, a top aide to former Governor Gaston Caperton, and is currently serving his fourth term as State Treasurer. From Boone County and currently residing in Kanawha County, Perdue is pro-life, proud of maintaining the state’s credit rating through the international financial crisis of the last several years, and generally has been considered a conventional center-left politician and an indicator of the center of gravity within the WVDP. Running on a platform of “investing in people,” Perdue has recently taken a more aggressively populist line, calling for a freeze and eventual rollback on utility rates. Having held high position in state government for two decades, Perdue has significant support among government workers and has been endorsed by the Teamsters, WV Farm Bureau, and the WV Troopers Association.
Perdue’s supporters say his performance as WV State Treasurer demonstrates his competence. Others cite his willingness to stand up to the powerful utility interests as showing his priorities are in order and he has the fire in the belly to fight for the little man. Others view his proposing the formation of a state-chartered Small Business Bank to meet the needs of WV businesses choked off from credit by the mistakes and greed of Wall Street as a taste of the innovative leadership Perdue could provide as governor. They note none of the other candidates have the executive experience and financial competence to guide the state through troubled times while building for the future.
Some of Perdue’s opponents say he has done a poor job as State Treasurer as the state’s budget crisis clearly shows. They say Perdue did and said nothing while the state’s unfunded liabilities for pensions and other post-employment benefits soared to crippling levels and will only get worse in the future. Other opponents say Perdue, as a career bureaucrat and politician, is out of touch with how business works and thinks real people need government to tell them how to lead their lives. They say his attacks on the utilities are merely election-year posturing since he sat back and said nothing while rates went up in the first place and show Perdue is only speaking out now because he is behind in the polls and is desperate to shake things up. Others say Perdue’s non-telegenic style is an electoral liability and his blandness is a sure-fire prescription for a general election loss.
Natalie Tennant was the first female Mountaineer (WVU’s sports teams’ mascot), a former television news anchor, and is currently serving her first term as WV Secretary of State. From Fairview in the north-central part of the state along the I-79 Corridor, Tennant is pro-choice and supported by EMILY’s List. Running on a platform of change, Tennant cites the need for “a new way forward.” Recently Tennant has declared support for the public employee causes in Wisconsin and Ohio. Her campaign and supporters have lately taken to characterizing her as “the most liberal” candidate in the Democratic field. Tennant has wide support among women generally and runs strong with younger professionals in the small cities of the state.
Tennant’s supporters say as governor Tennant will bring a fresh perspective and innovative approaches to problem solving. They cite her private sector experience as a journalist and running her own media firm as well as her relative youth in comparison to the rest of the field as showing Tennant is not tainted with the Good Ol’ Boy System, wheeling-and-dealing politics of the past. They say Tennant is the candidate best suited to break up the old ways of doing things which have kept the state mired in corruption. Tennant’s supporters say as the only woman and only pro-choice candidate in the field she best reflects the views of the majority of WVDP voters.
Some of Tennant’s opponents say Tennant is too inexperienced to serve as governor, citing her mishandling of the Byrd succession as evidence she is not ready for prime time. They note that in the low-risk and high-profile post of Secretary of State, she had only one hot potato land in her lap and fumbled it, misinterpreting the state’s election laws and having to be bailed out by the Attorney General’s office and a special session of the state legislature. Others say Tennant is deliberately unclear on the issues and is more interested in being all things to all people and getting elected rather than actually leading. Others point to her support from out-of-state pro-abortion groups while garnering few endorsements within the state as demonstrating she is out of touch with core West Virginia values.
Rick Thompson is a 58-year-old trial lawyer, former assistant prosecuting attorney, and currently serves as Speaker of the WV House of Delegates. From the Fort Gay area of Wayne County along the western border with Kentucky, Thompson is pro-life and strongly pro-labor, having been the go-to guy for the unions in dealing with the state legislature for a decade. Running on a theme of “West Virginia owes me nothing; I owe this state everything,” Thompson’s campaign focuses on the emotionally powerful goal of ending the generations-long migration of young people from West Virginia seeking work elsewhere. Thompson is the candidate of choice for most of the industrial unions as well as a favorite of the trial lawyers, having earned the endorsements of the United Mine Workers, the AFL-CIO, and both of the state’s teachers’ unions as well as being a favorite of the trial lawyers.
Thompson’s supporters say, as governor, Thompson – with his blue-collar background and accomplished legislative track record – has the vision to level the playing field between business and labor while still creating the jobs West Virginia needs, not taxes. They note his economic program focuses on rolling back taxes on the small and mid-sized businesses which are the engine of job growth rather than subsidizing big out-of-state corporations. They say Thompson has always been a fighter for the little man and cite his recent victory over acting Governor Tomblin over granting public employees salary raises rather than a one-time bonus as proof of his effectiveness and ability to get things done in Charleston.
His opponents say Thompson is a rabble-rousing union hothead and a throwback to the bad old days when labor and management were always in conflict rather than working together. They claim Thompson is in the pocket of the unions and trial lawyers and will make decisions as governor favoring their interests rather than those of the state’s population as a whole. Others say, if elected, Thompson will reverse the improved business climate in West Virginia achieved under Joe Manchin and cause the state to lose jobs to other states and overseas. Others say Thompson’s track record of supporting almost every proposal for state spending and overly generous raises for state employees shows he is a tax-and-spend liberal who will bankrupt the state. Others are concerned, like Tomblin, Thompson might also be a bit cornpone for both Panhandles in the general election.