* EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of gubernatorial candidate profiles. A profile of GOP challenger Bill Maloney ran on Monday. A story on Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson will appear later this week.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In February, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a piece of paper.
The paper became law and, after three years of public wrangling, West Virginia had a plan to deal with its OPEB liability.
OPEB is the inscrutable acronym for "other post-employment benefits." The multibillion-dollar liability was chiefly a product of the state's highly subsidized health insurance plan for retired public workers. The liability could have been a funding crisis for government, particularly county school systems.
Manchin tried to fix it, but Tomblin was the Democrat governor who did. His two-part plan, in theory, eliminates the liability by cutting benefits for future retirees and redirecting hundreds of millions of dollars into a trust fund to pay existing obligations. Tomblin's fix does not raise taxes.
This is not sexy stuff, as pretty much anyone with a sense of humor freely admits.
But shoring up the state's finances has real meaning for a generation of state policymakers who watched West Virginia careen through a series of public and private sector crises - each with their own little shorthand: workers' comp, med mal, OPEB.
For Tomblin and his supporters, this is what it means to "stay the course," which is their chief argument for the governor's re-election: Continue to pay the state's bills, deal with problems before they become nightmares and try to do it all without raising taxes. This, Tomblin has said, positions West Virginia for success.
Tomblin's Republican challenger, Bill Maloney, argues the state is not really poised for much of anything but more of the same. He indicts the Democrats generally and Tomblin specifically by pointing to the state's lackluster education system, dwindled labor force and chronic health problems.
The Democrats have controlled the state Legislature for eight decades, and Tomblin has been there for nearly half of them.
Verge of bankruptcy
Tomblin supporters - and Democrats in general - divide recent West Virginia history into two eras: the time before and the time after the state paid its bills on time.
The dividing line is 1989, the year Democrat Gov. Gaston Caperton took office. He succeeded Republican Gov. Arch Moore, although Democrats have controlled both the state House and Senate since 1930.
Although Caperton campaigned on a no-tax-increase platform, he said later the state's finances were in such shocking shape that he was forced to cut spending by 10 percent, increase taxes by $392 million and borrow another $135 million.
Former House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, was a freshman in 1989 and remembers the period well.
"We were on the verge of bankruptcy as a state," said Kiss, now a partner at the Bowles Rice law firm in Charleston.
Doctors were threatening to stop taking state workers and teachers as patients because the state insurance program wasn't paying their bills. The teachers retirement system was basically being robbed so officials could make ends meet. To make matters worse, state officials didn't have audited financial statements and so didn't even know precisely how bad things were.
While Tomblin was not yet at the height of his power, it was a formative period.
Caperton's administration started what Democrats portray as a gradual atonement for the fiscal sins of the past.
Kiss said Tomblin deserves credit for the past two decades of reckoning. In particular, Kiss credits Tomblin with mostly inventing the West Virginia Physicians' Mutual Insurance Co., which was established by the Legislature in 2004 to offer doctors affordable malpractice insurance. It came two years after hundreds of state doctors wore white lab coats to the Capitol to point out problems with medical malpractice coverage.
That was "98 percent his thought process," Kiss said of Tomblin.
Kiss and Tomblin led the Legislature as it slowly reformed and eventually privatized the state workers' compensation system.
At the same time, they had to come up with ways to fund sewer systems and schools.
Kiss remembers school buildings had deteriorated so much, the fire marshal worried about inspecting schools because if he did so closely, they might have to be closed.
In the long run, Caperton said the state substantially improved its education system, built roads and shored up its finances because of the work started in 1989.
Asked about Maloney's critique - that West Virginia remains stuck with education, health, infrastructure and economic problems - the former two-term governor paused for 10 seconds before he answered.
Caperton's answer was long but went to the heart of this year's election: Are Democrats, including Tomblin, making the state better or worse?
"I think that if you look at where we were when I became governor, where we are now is a whole lot better," Caperton said.
"When I came in, the state was really broke. Schools - you didn't want to send your kid physically to the schools. There were no computers in the classroom. The bond ratings and all the ways you look at the way a state looks financially were all in the basement, and Earl Ray was a big part of turning that around.
"And I think that governors since I was governor have taken what we've done and added on and improved it," he said.
"But what if we kept just on the route we were going when I came in or reversed it when I left? This place would not be what it is today.
"It's a tough time, but look at other states that are bankrupt - look at what California is. Look at so many other places that are really in terrible shape and have big debt, don't know how they are going to pay for it, schools that are running down - everything is just going in the wrong direction.
"I think West Virginia has more than held its own and improved. And I think Earl Ray gets a lot of credit for that."
Logan County roots
Tomblin, 60, was first elected to represent Logan County in the state House of Delegates in 1974 while he still was studying business at West Virginia University.