Governor came to political form during shift toward fiscal stability
* 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.
In 1980, he won a seat in the Senate. He was immediately in leadership as a majority whip. Then he became chairman of the finance committee and in 1995 was elected Senate president, a post he held longer than anyone in state history.
Despite his time as Senate leader, he still wasn't familiar to many West Virginians when he became acting governor in November 2010. Joe Manchin opted to vacate the Governor's Office and run for the U.S. Senate.
Suddenly, Tomblin was in charge, even though he was unelected and his title began with the word "acting."
Tomblin soon was forced by a court order to hold an election for a one-year term. Given a leg up because of his time acting as governor, Tomblin bested other leading Democrats in the 2011 primary and then narrowly defeated Maloney last fall.
Still, who was this chap from Chapmanville?
A trip to Logan might yield a story about his keen appreciation for the television show "Jeopardy," talk that he enjoyed the occasional Bacardi at the Logan County Country Club or a tale about his gardening - maybe about the time his green beans didn't turn out and he went searching for some just so he could do some canning.
The governor met his wife, Joanne Tomblin, during her internship at the Legislature while she pursued a master's degree. They married in 1979 and have one son, Brent.
The governor is non-confrontational, perhaps even shy. His allies say he is a consensus builder who likes to stay in the background and get things done.
Nevertheless, his life outside politics is much talked about by his critics but perhaps little understood by anyone.
The Tomblin campaign declined to make the governor available for an interview.
Some gray areas
Tomblin was a substitute teacher briefly starting after he graduated from West Virginia University in 1974, according to a biographic sketch provided by Tomblin campaign spokesman Chris Stadelman.
Shortly after he received a master's degree in business in 1975, Tomblin bought a restaurant cleverly named The Outside Inn near the city of Logan. The diner was open 24/7 except for Christmas. Miners ate there.
Tomblin developed a small housing subdivision in Lincoln County. He also managed several properties until a couple of years ago.
But he's perhaps best known for his work at Southern Amusement Co., his parents' company, which was one of the biggest owners of "gray" video poker machines. Tomblin kept the books for the company from the mid- to late '80s until it was sold in 1995.
The gray machine market was a multimillion-dollar industry in the state, according to estimates.
The poker machines themselves were not illegal. But payouts were illegal until they were legalized and further regulated a decade ago to bring in state tax revenue.
The Maloney campaign has bluntly called the governor an "illegal slots boss" because of his work at Southern Amusement.
William Kolibash, a former U.S. Attorney in the northern district, is the only prosecutor known to have gone after gray machine operators in the state. He said he didn't know of companies that were involved in the business unless the machines made illegal payouts.
"They weren't for amusement only," Kolibash said in a recent interview.
There were two basic legal problems. First, that the machines were making payouts. The second problem happened if gray machine owners skimmed money without paying taxes.
Stadelman said Tomblin wrote payroll checks and paid bills but did not do the company's taxes.
Then there are the dogs.
The Maloney campaign has been attacking Tomblin since last year for the few million dollars Tomblin's mother and brother have received in state subsidies to breed and race greyhounds. While Tomblin did vote for the bill that set up the fund, the money is distributed based on the performance of the dogs and is not something Tomblin directly controls.
(The state also subsidizes horse racing, which is actually the larger of the two subsidies, but Maloney last year declined to say whether those payments also should be cut. That's perhaps because of the political clout and economic benefit of the horse industry in the Republican-friendly Eastern Panhandle.)
Over the years, the governor's comments on his family have been limited.
"You love your family," he told a reporter in 1994 shortly after he got the votes to become Senate president.
The governor's father - a former Logan County sheriff - served two federal prison sentences, the last in 1992 for bribery.
The Maloney campaign points to these events to call into question Tomblin's integrity. The governor's allies point out that most of it is old innuendo or that two of the last four Senate presidents have left the chamber in disgrace for wrongdoing. Tomblin isn't one of them.
But from time to time, state newspapers noticed - and editorialized against - Tomblin's connections, including the "surprising turn of events" in 1999 when Joanne Tomblin was chosen to head Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College. At the time, she was the only college president in the state without a doctorate.
Kiss said the governor rarely talked about his business, which Tomblin was getting out of in the early 1990s when Tomblin and Kiss began their intense, years-long working relationship. Still, Kiss said the governor was a "very successful" businessman.
Kiss said Tomblin had always kept a "respectful distance" during legislative discussion over greyhounds and gray machines.
"I think he bent over backwards to not do something that would cause people to point a finger at him and say, 'You did this.' " Kiss said. "And, of course, people want to point fingers at him anyway. It's just the process."