By Mannix Porterfield
Jeffrey Kessler landed his first full, two-year term as president of the West Virginia Senate, the unanimous choice of fellow Democrats Sunday, signaling the end of strife that marked the chamber only a year ago.
Senate Republicans planned to meet this afternoon to name their minority leader.
Kessler was the only nominee in a closed-door caucus that lasted nearly an hour.
“It’s a unified Senate,” the former Marshall County prosecutor told reporters afterward.
Nothing illustrated that better than the nominating speech, delivered by Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, whom Kessler had replaced as majority leader last winter with Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.
Moreover, Kessler suggested there is no lingering problem between him and Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, who mounted a failed bid last winter to replace him as president.
Nor, he emphasized, would there be any difficulty with freshman Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, who ousted his former majority whip, former Sen. Richard Browning, in last May’s primary.
“I intend to employ the talents of each and every one of the members in this caucus and throughout the Senate to the best of their ability and ours,” Kessler said. “I’ve always found you get the better work out of people if you put them on committees or tasks they enjoy doing.”
Green lost his chairmanship of the Energy, Industry and Mining Committee after he chided Browning over his failure to support him in his bid to unseat Kessler.
Kessler had become “acting president” after Earl Ray Tomblin became acting governor to succeed the departed Joe Manchin, elevated to the U.S. Senate to succeed the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
“I can’t make everybody the majority leader,” Kessler said. “I can’t make everybody in positions of leadership. There’s not enough to go around.”
Kessler said he would name his committee chairs in January.
Two senators must be replaced — Walt Helmick of Pocahontas County, elected as agriculture commissioner, and Orphy Klempa of Ohio County, who won a seat on the county commission in his home district.
A third one, veteran Sen. Joseph Minard, D-Harrison, was nominated to become the next Senate clerk to plug a vacancy by the impending retirement of longtime Clerk Darrell Holmes.
Kessler also told reporters he would strive to achieve balance in the Senate from both a geographical and philosophical standpoint.
By that, Kessler said he wants a chamber representing all, “and one that’s not dominated by any particular region.”
“There are a lot of different and diverse interests,” the Senate leader said. “I think we do better work if all of them are represented.”
Kessler wasted no time in a news briefing alluding to the turmoil that made the usually calm Senate a focal point of news coverage last winter.
“We’ve had a couple of difficult caucuses the last couple of years,” he said. “I think this was a real show of how the Senate has come together. I was humbled by the show of unanimous support.”
With the Democratic leadership in sync, Kessler said the chamber is ready to hit the ground running after the holiday break.
“And I’m expecting that we will,” he said.
Besides the budget, which promises to be an arduous task, Kessler said the Senate needs to address education and prison reforms, and to look deeply at child poverty issues.
“I think that’s something we need to make a lynchpin of this session as well,” he said.
Kessler spoke of the alarming childhood obesity and diabetes statistics, and the high dropout rate.
“The common link throughout all this, I think you’ll find, is child poverty,” he said.
“If we focus on that, I think some of the other things will fall in line — education, a healthy lifestyle. And maybe some of the prison overcrowding will be alleviated as well if we get our kids on the right path and keep them there.”
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