Kessler overcomes challenge, elected Senate president
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sen. Jeff Kessler won his bid Monday to lead the state Senate, beating out a faction led by Kanawha County Sen. Brooks McCabe.
Kessler, D-Marshall, has been acting as Senate president for the past year on an interim basis while longtime Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin was acting as governor. Tomblin won a one-year term as governor Oct. 4 and resigned his Senate post Sunday, just before he was inaugurated. That forced a vote on who would succeed him.
Kessler won the fulltime post in a decisive 28-5 vote on the Senate floor Monday night, with all Democrats voting for him and five of the six Republicans voting for Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam. Sen. Karen Facemyer, R-Jackson was absent.
Kessler said serving as Senate president was one of the greatest privileges of his life, and he praised Tomblin's "capable and able tutelage.
"I will do everything, every single day to make this body -- and this state, as well -- the best," Kessler said.
McCabe, a normally cautious senator, had remained publicly confident in recent days he could find the votes to lead the Senate. But his bid was doomed after an 11-17 loss among Democrats in a closed-door caucus vote Monday afternoon.
McCabe supporters had worked to secure his victory until nearly the very end. There were some suggestions they had hoped to lure Republicans to vote with them to get the 18 votes necessary to elect a president of the 34-member Senate.
But that would have involved breaking with tradition and disobeying the will of the party caucus. It would also have meant a vote on the Senate floor with Democrats voting with Republicans against Democrats -- a spectacle that some Democrats had privately hoped to avoid.
The minority party typically votes for its own leader as Senate president in a symbolic gesture. In the end, Republicans did just that.
McCabe conceded to Kessler shortly before the full Senate convened Monday night and formally selected Kessler its president with the backing of every Democrat.
Several senators that McCabe's camp had hoped to have on board, like Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, did not side with McCabe and instead stayed with Kessler.
Even the newly named Sen. Art Kirkendoll voted with Kessler, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the caucus vote, which is supposed to be private.
Tomblin earlier in the day had selected Kirkendoll, a Democrat, to succeed him in representing Boone, Lincoln, Logan and Wayne counties.
Kirkendoll is a former Logan County commissioner with deep political ties in the southern coalfields.
Kirkendoll's decision to back Kessler avoided what could have been an awkward position for Tomblin. If Kirkendoll had backed McCabe the same day he was selected by Tomblin, it could have been read as a sign that Tomblin was in McCabe's camp.
Tomblin, who faces reelection next year, needs the Senate to help him get bills through if he hopes to tout any legislative accomplishments in his campaign. Tomblin and House Speaker Rick Thompson already have a notoriously uneven relationship.
Another senator who McCabe's camp may have sought -- Bob Plymale, D-Wayne -- even gave the nominating speech for Kessler. Stollings seconded the motion.
Plymale praised Kessler's "intellectual acumen" and his work as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Kessler helped reform the workers' compensation system and passed medical malpractice reform.
"He has and will in the future govern diligently," Plymale said.
McCabe's failure to win the Senate leadership post was the second time in a year he was beaten by Kessler. On Nov. 17, 2010, Kessler emerged as a potential temporary replacement for Tomblin following days of jockeying by more than a half-dozen senators.
Kessler won last November by beating McCabe and Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh. Green also said he would challenge Kessler this time around but is said to have thrown his support behind McCabe.
McCabe was Kessler's Senate pro tempore for the past year, a symbolically important post. But then in August, McCabe said he planned to challenge Kessler. At that point, Kessler stripped McCabe of his title.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Cory Palumbo, D-Kanawha, also backed McCabe.
If Palumbo also loses his post, Kanawha may face a significant loss of power due to McCabe's challenge.
"I am confident that my colleagues -- Senator Palumbo included -- will be in positions of significant responsibility," McCabe said.
Kessler did not shuffle the chairmanships Monday but said those appointments were pending future changes.
"I think that means I keep my spot at least through the end of the day," Palumbo said.
Kessler told reporters there may be "some changes" and he wanted to make sure his leadership team was "pulling in the same direction."
Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, predicted there would only be minor changes of leadership and did not seem to expect Palumbo would lose his seat.
Kirkendoll was one of three people selected by a Democratic Party committee to replace Tomblin. Kirkendoll was a clear favorite, however, given his stature in the coalfields.
"Art is a longtime advocate for the people of Logan County, and I believe his dedication to the greater good will easily expand to all corners of the 7th Senatorial District," Tomblin said in a statement.
"I have the utmost confidence that Art will diligently represent the people that I have so thoroughly enjoyed representing over my Senate career."
The Senate's Monday session will also go down in the books because it apparently featured the first time a senator voted by telephone. That was Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, who is on military assignment in Afghanistan. A speakerphone was set up on his desk for the vote.