House speaker resignation sparks political jockeying
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Even before House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, announced his resignation, fellow delegates began debating who would be next to lead the House.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced Thursday Thompson is leaving his post as speaker to become the new cabinet secretary of the Department of Veterans Assistance. Current Secretary Keith Gwinn is retiring this summer.
There were rumors last December that Thompson, who has severed as speaker since 2007, could lose his post. Although the grumblings didn't amount to action, Kanawha County Democrat Doug Skaff was mentioned as a potential replacement at the time.
Skaff was one of many delegates Thursday to confirm interest in being the next speaker. Others include Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton; House Finance Committee Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo; House Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison; and House Health Committee Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne.
Skaff also kicked around the idea of running for Congress after Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., announced earlier this year she is running for U.S. Senate.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in January he won't run in 2014.
After former state Democratic Party chairman Nick Casey announced his plans to run for Congress, many speculated Skaff and the party wanted to avoid an intense primary.
Skaff said he's now in a good position to make a move for speaker.
"I have a pretty good following of anywhere from 18 to 20 votes," he said.
There are 54 Democrats in the House. It would take votes from the majority - 28 delegates - to secure the speaker's spot.
Skaff considers Miley the other frontrunner. He thinks the House needs someone who is politically moderate and able to work with both parties to create jobs, help seniors and move West Virginia forward.
He wondered whether Boggs or White might be seen as the status quo.
Head of the judiciary committee for the past four years, Miley said any of the members who expressed interest Thursday would make a good candidate. He would be honored to be speaker, but he said his primary concern is a smooth transition of Democratic leadership.
"If it's not so smooth, then that suggests of perhaps divisiveness and bitterness over the selection process, which is at risk for extending into the remainder of the ... next legislative session," Miley said.
"If the body of Democrats can get together and rally around and support one person as their next leader, it would be much better in my opinion."
Boggs attended the press conference announcing Thompson's new position. A 17-year veteran of the House, Boggs praised Thompson's ability to work across the aisle.
The majority leader for the last five years, Boggs said everyone would prefer Thompson to remain. With his departure, he thinks now is the time for continuity in the House.
"I think he's done a pretty good job in the period of time he's been there," said White, who's been in the House for almost 20 years.
The speaker's job is a full-time position, White said. He commended Thompson on the job he has done, adding finance chairman is also a position that requires a great deal of work outside of the regular legislative session.
White said he feels like he's represented all of West Virginia in his last seven years as chairman of the finance committee. Working with the governor and both parties in both chambers to craft the state's massive budget has given him good perspective, he said.
It all comes down to who is best at working with different people, in Perdue's opinion.
"You have to find the best cat herder in the group, whoever can herd cats the best," Perdue said, adding he borrowed the phrase from longtime House speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh.
That's been Perdue's "stock and trade" during his 16 years in the Legislature. With the challenges facing West Virginia when it comes to implementing a new health care exchange and expanding Medicaid benefits, Perdue thinks his experience with health policy would be amplified as speaker.
He echoed Miley's concerns about a heated speaker's race, though.
"It's the second year of a session. We really can't afford to have some kind of divisive, fragmenting election. We need to have consensus," he said.
Republicans were excited to hear the news of Thompson's resignation.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he and Thompson did not always agree but he considers him a friend. Armstead is optimistic the Republican party has the chance to woo five conservative Democrats in an effort to elect a GOP speaker.
State party chairman Conrad Lucas said Thompson's resignation is a sign that the GOP is all but guaranteed to grab control of the House in 2014.
"Thompson's actions should not surprise political observers in the least. It is not uncommon for career politicians to see a changing political tide and dodge impending defeat. This is a sign that the West Virginia Republican Party has shaken ranking Democrats to their very core," Lucas said in an emailed press release.
"It is no surprise that the Democrat leadership will make every attempt to avoid losing their jobs to Republicans by exiting before the inevitable," the release continued.
Thompson was first elected to the House in 1980, but left and became assistant prosecuting attorney for Wayne County in 1981, according to the Legislature website. Thompson returned to the House in 2000 and was first elected speaker in 2007. He replaced Kiss as one of the longest serving speakers in state history.
A new speaker must be elected within 10 days of Thompson's resignation, said House Clerk Greg Gray. White said he expects the resignation to take effect June 15.
Once Thompson officially resigns, Gray said Tomblin must call a special session of the House. Both parties will meet in caucus - a private meeting - and nominate someone as their candidate for speaker, Gray said.
Miley, Perdue and other Democrats said they expect to know their party's nomination within the next two weeks. The new leader will likely appoint different delegates as members of House leadership.
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