Longtime agriculture commissioner hasn't endorsed candidate
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - State Department of Agriculture officials say longtime Commissioner Gus Douglass has not endorsed a candidate in this fall's general election, although a look at Republican nominee Kent Leonhardt's website might have voters believing otherwise.
A slideshow on Leonhardt's site, www.kentforwv.com, prominently features a photo of Leonhardt and Douglass shaking hands in the commissioner's office.
Douglass, who will retire next year after 44 years as the state's farmer-in-chief, is the longest-serving commissioner in U.S. history and one of the biggest names in the state's Democrat party.
Leonhardt is a retired Marine and Monongalia County livestock farmer running his first-ever statewide campaign. His opponent is another well-known Democrat, longtime state senator Walt Helmick.
Agriculture department spokesman Buddy Davidson said Douglass has not endorsed either candidate, and he doesn't expect the commissioner will do so.
"I would say if he was going to make an endorsement, he would have by now," Davidson said.
Davidson said Douglass' photo with Leonhardt was taken during a tour of the agriculture department's facilities in Guthrie earlier this year. Helmick got a similar tour, he said.
"It's not an endorsement of Leonhardt, but he's free to use that photo. They're on friendly terms," he said.
Leonhardt's campaign also posted the photo to its Twitter account on Monday morning.
"Commissioner Gus Douglass is the longest serving Ag Commish in America. As he retires I am ready to serve! #RealFarmer" the tweet read.
That "Real Farmer" hash-tag is a jab at Helmick.
Beginning in the Democratic primary earlier this year, Helmick's opponents have repeatedly insisted he is not fit for the agriculture commissioner's office because he runs a water bottling operation from his Pocahontas County property but does not raise crops or livestock.
Douglass, a lifelong farmer who still lives on the 540-acre Mason County farm where he grew up, alluded to those attacks against Helmick, albeit subtly, when he endorsed assistant agriculture commissioner Steve Miller in the Democratic primary.
"Steve Miller is a farmer, first and foremost," Douglass said in a statement released by the Miller campaign. "He is the only candidate in this race with a degree in agriculture and has honorably served as the assistant commissioner of agriculture for a number of years."
Helmick has insisted throughout the campaign that his bottled water is an "agricultural product," but says his experience as a businessman and state senator would be more important to the commissioner's office than farming experience.
Ward Wyatt, Leonhardt's campaign manager, acknowledged the photo with Douglass is not an official endorsement. He said Douglass' administration has been helpful in Leonhardt's campaign, however, answering any questions the candidate had about the agriculture department's budget and issues affecting the agency.
"There's no public endorsement on the commissioner's part, but he has certainly supported our efforts in anything we wanted to know about the role of the commissioner," Wyatt said.
When asked if the campaign was trying to make it look like Douglass endorsed Leonhardt, Wyatt said the photo actually shows Leonhardt's endorsement of Douglass.
"What I really want it to convey is Kent appreciates everything the commissioner has done in the interest of West Virginians," he said. "Drawing conclusions of an endorsement, that's up to whoever's looking at it."
Tom Susman, Helmick's campaign manager, said the photo strikes him as hypocritical.
"They say they want to change things, but then they want to marry the status quo. It's kind of contradictory, to be honest with you," he said.
He said Helmick also took a tour of the agriculture department's facilities earlier this year and met with Douglass. Susman said the campaign did not ask for Douglass's endorsement because Helmick "didn't want to put him on the spot" since the commissioner endorsed Miller in the primary.
Susman said Helmick and Douglass are friends, however, and have had a "good working relationship" during Helmick's time in the state Senate.
He said he's not concerned about the Republicans' use of the photo.
"They've got to run their campaign, and we've got to run our campaign," he said. "Gus is a great guy, and Gus will take his picture with any citizen that comes by."