by Ron Gregory
At midweek, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin is preparing to deliver his farewell speech to the people of West Virginia. After six years at the helm, the former Logan County State Senator will be turning his office over to billionaire Jim Justice.
Well do I remember the opening days of the Tomblin administration, when he served both as Acting Governor and State Senate President. Tomblin came to Hamlin during that period to award a grant for the public bus system. I recall asking him then, “Do you want people to call you Governor, or Senator?” He smiled the pleasant smile that personifies Earl Ray Tomblin and replied, “They can still just call me Earl Ray.”
There’s no grand scheme of things to this Governor. He was a proud product of Logan County when he assumed office and he is just as proud today. Like his fellow traveler, State Treasurer John Perdue of Boone County, these are two men proud of their heritage and not afraid to defend it.
Tomblin inherited a state government in dire financial condition. It has only gotten worse during his tenure. While his ex-Commerce Secretary Burdette can make claims of developing business from one end of the state to the other, it simply isn’t true. Southern West Virginia, the place Tomblin and this newspaper call home, is nearly an economic wasteland. Coal mines and related industry have closed, putting thousands out of work. A recent study found that much of the area is in a deep depression, not just a recession.
Governor Tomblin is not responsible for the economic downturn. A series of factors contributed to coal’s current condition. The fact that there are many West Virginians who would actually cheer on coal’s ultimate demise is rather peculiar. Faced with facts, it is difficult to see how the coal industry recovers. President-elect Donald Trump and Governor-elect Justice say it will. I guess we will see.
Tomblin, a fiscal conservative for a Democrat, made as many of the right moves as possible to balance the state budget. Suffice it to say, it can’t be balanced. There is simply not enough income to offset outgo. Republicans who control the state legislature refuse to consider new taxes and fees. That means, somehow, an administration must make do with the money generated. To keep the state perking at its present level, that is not possible. Already, the legislature has approved raiding the so-called “rainy day fund” of resources. There’s not enough left to bail the state out forever. At some point soon, the financial rubber will meet the road.
This Governor, not flashy and not demanding of public adoration, will leave office with the state in a financial quagmire. Again, he did not create it; but he was in charge while it developed.
Southern West Virginians, including Tomblin, have staked much of their hopes for an economic recovery on what is known as the former Hobet surface mine property along the Boone-Lincoln County border. An industrial park is planned there and the Governor and others are outspoken in their support. In fact, they will spend millions of roads to develop easier access to the property from Corridor G (US Route 119).
Skeptics remain, of course, as they always do in the Mountain State. Many point out that the Tech Center property in South Charleston still has 65 undeveloped acres at what they think is a better location than Hobet. Others note that the James Harless Park on the Logan-Mingo line has not been the economic boon many expected it to be. Still, such leaders as Boone County’s State Senator Ron Stollings remain firmly devoted to Hobet.
Stollings has told me several times that Hobet represents “the best hope we’ve got left in Southern West Virginia.” It’s a “build it and they will come” concept, although Stollings says he has already spoken with some major companies interested in the site.
Tomblin apparently wants that industrial park to be his economic legacy for Southern West Virginia. He evidently thinks he will be fondly remembered if jobs and industry return to the Southern part of the state through Hobet.
Be all that as it may, I think Tomblin will be remembered as a good man who may have been just a bit overwhelmed as Governor. In training and experience, there may never have been a more qualified chief executive. But Tomblin’s service as Senate President often involved negotiations and consensus-building. Compromise was the hallmark of Tomblin’s Senate leadership. Such compromise is difficult as Governor, where every decision affects somebody, either positively or negatively. Tomblin was never in “over his head,” as some critics have complained. He is a brilliant man. He simply is not suited for the slam-dunk, hard decisions that must be made as Governor.
The water crisis was an example. Whereas, former Governors Arch Moore and Joe Manchin would have gotten decked out in scuba gear and plunged into the Elk River to “protect” the public, Tomblin often huddled in the background of press conferences allowing others to speak and take the heat.
I will forever believe Tomblin is a prince of a gentleman and West Virginia is fortunate to have had him as their leader. As a person, it is difficult if not impossible to find anyone better than Tomblin.
We wish him well in retirement. The joys of Myrtle Beach and Chapmanville beckon him home.
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Confirming a report here weeks ago, Governor-elect Justice has named Kanawha County Commissioner David Hardy as Tax and Revenue chief. Hardy, as I noted when I first mentioned the appointment, routinely emceed Justice for Governor events around Kanawha County during the 2016 campaign.
Hardy was also just re-elected to his county commission seat but the Governor-elect’s office says he will give that up prior to taking the state position January 19. Hardy became a county commissioner by the luck of th draw when his name was drawn out of a hat when Circuit Judge Duke Bloom left the commission to move to the judicial annex.
Commissioner Kent Carper put up Hardy’s name while Republican Commissioner Hoppy Shores favored banker-businessman Ike Smith. When the two sitting commissioners could not agree on a choice, they did say they would accept an impartial selection of one of the two. Drawing the name from the hat, Hardy won his seat.
Unlike now, when Hardy apparently understands the need to give up his county position to assume the state role, Hardy tried for a period of time to continue serving as a Charleston city councilman and as County Commissioner. He said he could see no conflict in the two jobs, although others cried foul.
Eventually, Hardy became a county commissioner only and has served until now, winning re-election each six years.
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Hardy represents Magisterial District Two in Kanawha, where there are currently four magisterial districts. Some believe state law requires his replacement to be both a Democrat, as is Hardy, and a District Two resident. Others think Hardy’s replacement could come from either District Two or Three, since that district does not currently have a member on the board.
State law requires the replacement to come from the same political party and those making the choice will again be Carper and Shores.
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“Hidden Figures,” a new movie touted by West Virginia State University, debuts this weekend nationally.
The film is said to be a moving tribute to the Institute school and its development. “It is not about race,” said WVSU President Anthony Jenkins.
One the main characters, Katherine Johnson, is a WVSU graduate. In fact, Johnson, from Greenbrier County, attended high school classes at State because Greenbrier offered no high school due to segregation.
The film is highly recommended because of the honesty portrayed with regard to segregation.
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