Grumbling about leadership follows Democratic losses in House
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Democratic losses in the state House of Delegates have some questioning the leadership of the House and the state Democratic Party.
Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said he's had "numerous conversations" with Democratic members who worry the party could lose control of the House if Speaker Rick Thompson remains in control.
"Members are concerned that they need protection going into this session," Skaff said in an interview. "If they continue the status quo, they fear not returning in two years."
Members of Thompson's leadership team were confident this week he would remain speaker. Democrats are expected to decide that during a private vote next month.
Thompson, D-Wayne, became House leader in 2007.
Democrats held a 72-28 majority then but since have lost 18 seats, including as many as 11 this year. Republicans now hold more House seats than they have at any time since the Great Depression.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen in the leadership of the House, but all the Democrats should take a hard look at what's happening - under this current leadership we've been losing seats," Skaff said.
Skaff's comments hint at a longstanding divide between business and labor.
The state Chamber of Commerce endorsed only one member of Thompson's core leadership team - House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo.
White said the House would have a different agenda now that Republicans and Democrats are on such close footing.
Chamber President Steve Roberts said he's certain Democrats are considering a change in the House.
"I feel certain that there are many moderate Democrats who are thinking seriously about whether it's best for them and for the state to adopt a more moderate stance and be willing to work with all sides to help eliminate barriers to job creation in West Virginia," he said.
Thompson's long-time political adviser, Mike Plante, said it was "time for Democrats to work together."
"Leadership is about getting things done, and while Rick Thompson has been speaker, we've cut the food tax, lowered businesses taxes, paid down our unfunded liabilities and balanced the state's budget," Plante said.
Skaff said "conservative Democrats" - like himself, White or U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin - are the party members now best positioned to win election.
"Is the current leadership team responsible for any of those 11 delegates not coming back?" Skaff said.
Democrat finger pointing extended beyond the walls of the House.
House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said he didn't see the connection between the leadership and the losses.
"I don't think the leadership of the House had anything to do with the loss of the seats in the House of Delegates," he said.
Caputo blamed a bad year for Democrats - President Barack Obama lost all 55 counties - and an influx of out-of-state Republican money that ended up getting spent on competitive state House races.
"Obviously the Democrat Party is going to have to get out and do a better job of supporting their candidates," White said.
House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, also blamed the party and state party Chairman Larry Puccio for the 11 losses in the House.
Perdue said by conceding that it did not completely support Obama, the Democratic Party opened the door for Republicans.
"When the decision was made to not fully support Mr. Obama, then it stole the energy from the party at the local level," Perdue said. "No matter what Mr. Puccio may have been trying to do, it couldn't establish that energy and that's why we lost 11 seats."
Some Democrats ran from Obama - Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, most notably. Both Manchin and Tomblin won.
But others did not, including U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall and Treasurer John Perdue. Both Treasurer Perdue and Rahall won.
Delegate Perdue said the party might have been trying to avoid getting tied to Obama but lost some of its fight.
"The Democratic Party chose to lose a finger rather than an arm," he said, "but in doing so they lost their grip."
Puccio blamed an influx of out-of-state Republican money.
"While the Republican Party - the National Republican Campaign Committee - put in $120,000 to the state Republican Party, the national Democratic Parties did not put those monies into our state party," Puccio said.
"Between the monies that were put in by the Republicans out-of-state and the out-of-state PACs that spent tens of thousands of dollars helping their legislators, this tells us we must call on our national groups more to try to compete with the out-of-state Republican money that is coming into the state."
There may be other factors for losses, including last year's redistricting. Two of the likely losses came in the newly drawn 35th District, which Skaff represents.
Delegates Bonnie Brown and Barbara Hatfield, both D-Kanawha, are expected to lose their seats there, although several hundred provisional ballots remain uncounted.
Skaff helped draw that new district. Because of that, he could be open to criticism from within his own party for helping cost Democrats seats - although every incumbent member in the district signed off on the plan.