Incoming W.Va. House Speaker Vows to ‘Lead from Middle’

By Lawrence Messina | December 12, 2006

The next speaker of West Virginia’s House of Delegates will be receptive to measures pressing large employers like Wal-Mart for better health care benefits and overhauling the grievance process for public workers, his supporters said Sunday.

But the nomination of Delegate Rick Thompson has also spurred suspicions among foes of organized labor and trial lawyers, as both groups backed his candidacy. A lawyer, Thompson opposed some of the legislation passed in recent years limiting lawsuits against doctors and insurance companies.

Thompson, 54, stressed both before and after the nomination process that he considers himself a centrist who has yet to carve out an agenda.

“What I think people are having trouble understanding is, I want everybody at the table,” Thompson told The Associated Press on Sunday. “I want to try to lead from the middle, by building consensus.”

Meeting behind closed doors, the House’s majority Democrats nominated Thompson over Delegate Scott Varner, D-Marshall, and the current majority whip. After the vote, by secret ballot, Varner offered his support for Thompson.

All 100 delegates will cast public ballots for speaker on Jan. 10, when their regular 60-day session begins. The Republicans are expected to nominate a competing candidate from their own ranks. Democrats hold 72 seats, after gaining four in the November general election.

A minority in both the House and Senate, GOP lawmakers also nominated new leaders in each chamber Sunday. Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, was the unanimous choice to lead House Republicans, while Mercer County Sen. Don Caruth was similarly tapped as Senate minority leader.

Armstead succeeds Charles Trump, R-Morgan, who is leaving the Legislature this year. Caruth will replace Sen. Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, who chose not to seek another term as leader.

Senate Republicans lost two seats in November, reducing their share to 11 of 34 seats. Both Armstead and Caruth are lawyers, as is Trump.

Thompson is on course to succeed Raleigh County Democrat Bob Kiss, who also decided to leave the House. A lawyer as well, Kiss tied his predecessor, now-U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers as the longest-serving House speaker at five terms in that post.

Kiss was considered the appointed heir of Chambers, D-Cabell, and ran unopposed to replace him in 1996. The race between Thompson and Varner – deemed the establishment candidate as part of Kiss’ leadership team – was the first contest for speaker since Chambers’ first term in 1986.

A number of lobbyists for labor groups and trial lawyers were on hand to laud Thompson after Sunday’s caucus vote.

“This is going to give us a voice at the table, and that’s all we’ve ever asked for,” said Ken Perdue, president of the state AFL-CIO.

Perdue said that while Kiss was honest in his dealings with labor, several of his key chairmen routinely trapped its bills in their committees. Thompson has yet to announce his leadership team, but Perdue predicts better fortunes in 2007 for the “fair share” bill addressing health care benefits that died during this year’s session.

That legislation was modeled on a Maryland law that has since been struck down in federal court. Supporters argue that large employers like Wal-Mart burden Medicaid and similar public health care programs by failing to offer sufficient benefits.

“Whether that bill or something else comes up, this needs to be discussed,” Perdue said. “It’s all about cost-shifting.”

Perdue also hopes the House next year will consider revamping the way the state resolves public employee grievances. But labor groups do not plan a major push toward granting them collective bargaining rights, he added.

As for the new minority leaders, state GOP chairman Dr. Doug McKinney believes each will scrutinize whatever agenda emerges from the Democrats.

“Both have been guys who have questioned the bills,” McKinney said Sunday. “The Republicans will watch out for the unintended consequences of legislation.”

McKinney also expects GOP lawmakers to target regulations and the state’s civil justice system, criticizing both as hindrances to business. He noted that Thompson was among a handful of delegates to vote against 2003 legislation limiting medical malpractice lawsuits and jury damage awards.

Thompson maintains that his profession should not be used to prejudge his performance as speaker.

“I think all these various interests want what’s best for West Virginia,” he told the AP. “Everybody has the same goal.”

Gov. Joe Manchin, also a Democrat, phoned Thompson to congratulate him during the interview. The two planned to meet late Sunday, upon the governor’s return from a Martinsburg event.

As expected, Senate Democrats on Sunday nominated President Earl Ray Tomblin for a seventh term in that post. Tomblin, D-Logan, became the longest-serving Senate president in the state’s history with his fifth term, in 2003.

Each chamber’s non-legislator elective officers were also re-nominated. They are Clerk Gregory M. Gray, Doorkeeper John A. Roberts and Sergeant at Arms Oce Smith in the House, and Clerk Darrell E. Holmes, Doorkeeper Jack Trail and Sergeant at Arms Howard Wellman in the Senate.

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