The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 1, 2011

House passes election bill

Version changes dates to May 14 primary and a Sept. 13 general

CHARLESTON — Moving toward a potential battle with the Senate over a court-ordered gubernatorial election in West Virginia this year, House leaders are insisting on a May 14 primary.

Flanked by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Speaker Rick Thompson announced bi-partisan plans to suspend House rules today that require a bill be read on three separate days and move the bill swiftly to the Senate.

Only late last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee set a primary date of June 20, coinciding with West Virginia’s birthday.

The House version also changes the Senate’s plan for an Oct. 4 general election to Sept. 13.

Both House dates fulfill the secretary of state’s request to have an approved bill in hand 90 days before balloting.

In January, the state Supreme Court, acting on two citizen lawsuits, demanded an election “as soon as practical,” but left it to the discretion of the Legislature as to whether candidates would be picked by convention or in a primary.

“After researching it, the House came to the understanding, the quick realization, that the people’s right to nominate out-trumped any of the problems, including the turmoil in the Senate over the present situation,” Thompson, D-Wayne, told reporters at a late afternoon news conference.

Upon listening to county clerks, Thompson said the House felt it more reasonable to hold an election in May, rather than in June. Another rap on a June election is that the turnout likely would be diminished since families plan vacations once school terms end, he said.

“We need to swiftly resolve this issue and move on to the important business and problems and concerns facing our state,” the speaker said.

“We wanted to make sure the people of West Virginia are allowed to participate in this process.”

One problem with the convention process is that those serving overseas in the armed forces would be left out, Thompson said.

“As a veteran myself, I believe that’s wrong,” he said.

Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said the House bill mirrors the stance the GOP caucus took early on when questions arose about the ability of Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, to act as governor until the final year of former Gov. Joe Manchin’s second term is filled.

Manchin’s elevation to a U.S. Senate seat last fall triggered an avalanche of political maneuvering that has left some unrest even now in the Senate, or “turmoil” as Thompson characterized it.

Talk has been rife of late among discontented Senate members of suing to decide if a rules change that made Sen. Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, the “acting president” is legal.

Shortly after the Thompson-Armstead news conference, Kessler indicated the Senate would whip its own election bill through today as well, sticking to its preferred dates.

Armstead said the House bill not only addresses the existing controversy but provides a long-term fix that will deal with any future such succession problems, even a century from now.

“We cannot go wrong allowing the people of West Virginia to vote,” he said.

Thompson smiled when reminded of the Senate’s reputation for moving slowly, even on pressing matters, and said he hopes the upper chamber would act rapidly to get the issue resolved.

As of today, however, the full Legislature has until Valentine’s Day to get the bill downstairs to Tomblin’s desk.

“I think the Senate will be willing to do this,” Thompson said of the date changes in both the primary and general elections.

“Obviously, we have sufficient time to get this bill passed. I don’t see a problem.”

Does the House version moving the primary up amount to a disadvantage for lawmakers interested in running for governor?

“I don’t think that’s relevant,” Thompson said.

“This bill and this law is not about anyone’s intention to run for office or the ability to run for office. My primary job is to be speaker of the House. I want to be their leader first. I’ll campaign for governor whenever my job is done as speaker.”

Thompson vowed to run “very hard” for governor and likely will find himself in a crowded Democratic primary. Already, he, Tomblin and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant have saddled up for the race. Republican hopefuls so far include former Secretary of State Betty Ireland and Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph.

“I lead by building consensus,” Thompson said. “I lead by talking to my members. I lead by listening to my members.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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