The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 16, 2013

House Speaker abandons gavel to become Chief of Veterans Affairs

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Rick Thompson is laying aside the gavel as Speaker of the House of Delegates for a new role in West Virginia government, a cabinet-level post as secretary of the Department of Veterans Assistance. But don’t consider this as the final chapter in his political career.

For now, however, the Wayne County lawmaker says he is content to work with veterans and their families to help them with the benefits pledged to them, leaving the political speculation to the House chamber and the jockeying that is bound to erupt as fellow Democrats vie to succeed him as the speaker.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made it official Thursday, naming the lawyer and one-time soldier to succeed ailing Keith Gwinn, a 20-year Navy veteran who plans to call it quits in mid-June in deference to unspecified health issues.

“I know that he’ll do an outstanding job to help and support and do what he can for the veterans of our state,” the governor said in an interview.

“I’m very pleased to have him on board with me. He’s very passionate about veterans and will do what he can to assure that people who served us, that we can do what we can to take care of them.”

Upon learning of Gwinn’s pending retirement, set to occur in mid-June, the outgoing speaker said he had some discussions with Tomblin, zeroing in on his prospects of succeeding the retiring secretary.

“I thought it through,” said Thompson, who once was in the military police while serving with the Army.

“These opportunities don’t come along every day, for you to be able to do something you feel so strongly about. This was something I was extremely interested in. I think it’s a good move.”

Tomblin must call a special session of the House within 10 days of Gwinn’s retirement so that delegates can elect a new speaker, and Thompson said he expects this to occur after the June interims session, ticketed for Wheeling in deference to the state’s 150th birthday and the fact that city housed the first capital.

Thompson applauded the governor for making the veterans change announcement now, since it will give the majority party sufficient time to begin thinking of a new speaker. Additionally, it also means the House will have seven months to begin laying plans for the 2014 legislative session.

While several notable Democrats likely will be jockeying to take his place, Thompson said he is staying out of the race as far as recommending a successor.

“That’s their process,” the speaker said in the same interview.

“I’m going to be working in a new capacity as a cabinet secretary for the governor and that will be my main concern at this point. I’m sure the House has a number of good leaders up there.”

Thompson suggested his policy of openness and transparency would be maintained and voiced his satisfaction that in the last session many major issues were resolved.

“I think they’ll be fine and capable without me in that position,” he said.

Now 60, the Lavalette resident wouldn’t rule out a possible return to the political arena, although he got a chuckle out of the question when it was posed. Thompson unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor last year.

“This leaves anything open,” the attorney said.

“I’m going to stay with the governor and do this job and then we’ll see where this leads me down the road. It’s something I feel real strong about. I get to continue to work with and meet a number of people, veterans and their families. It bodes me well for whatever I choose to do. Right now, my concentration is on this job.”

It didn’t take long for chatter to start about occupying the speaker’s podium.

Democrats had unanimously chosen the Wayne County lawmaker last winter to serve as speaker for a fourth straight term.

His election came as Republicans occupied 46 of the 100 seats in the House, in the wake of the 2012 election, leaving them only five shy of becoming the majority party.

Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette, learned of the change in Thompson’s political career Wednesday night, saying he then had it confirmed by Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, and other Democrats in the House. Perry said he has no interest in seeking the post of speaker.

Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, who served five years as Thompson’s majority leader, praised his service as speaker and confirmed that he wants to follow in his shoes to wield the gavel in the House.

“I’m happy for him personally, but I’m disappointed as far as the House goes,” Boggs said.

“I think we have come off an extremely productive session. He’s been a great speaker, with an open door policy in the truest sense of the word, not just in theory, but in actions. I think his ability to take in all the information, work out compromises and consensus on issues, has been outstanding. And I think he will be missed in that capacity.”

Boggs and Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, were the most prominent names to surface as possible successors, but observers hinted that other Democrats might leap into the fray by the time the June special session is called by Tomblin.

“I certainly have an interest,” Boggs said, adding he would be talking with fellow Democrats in the next few days to “look into that possibility.”

Thompson donned the olive drab as an active duty soldier between 1972 and 1974, and was in the reserves four years thereafter, earning an honorable discharge in 1978. He won his first term in the House in 2000 and has been speaker since the 2007 session, and is a life member of American Legion Post 93.

While making no firm commitment, Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, left open the possibility he might be in the running for the speakership as well.

“You never say never in this game of politics,” Caputo said. “We’ll just see how things shake out.”

Gwinn called it an honor to serve as the first secretary of the new Department of Veterans Assistance and to work “alongside some of our state’s most patriotic individuals and a blessing to touch the lives of so many military heroes.”

“By working together, we have accomplished a great deal, yet there is always more that can be done,” he said.

“I regret that my health inhibits me from continuing my service as cabinet secretary, but I am confident that if our citizens, communities, and leaders remain committed to veterans and their families, West Virginia will always be the most patriotic state in the nation.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com