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Speaker speculation not a new phenomenon

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In West Virginia politics, it can be helpful to look backward for a better understanding of what may happen moving forward.

Take 2007, for example. Things were different.

Gus Douglass showed no signs of slowing down, the food tax was worth complaining about, Gov. Joe Manchin was celebrating the state's recent privatization of the workers' compensation system, the state's first class of Promise scholars had recently graduated from college, the idea of a U.S. Senate without Robert C. Byrd was just a faint fear, and the House of Delegates had 72 Democrats and 28 Republicans.

Bob Kiss, a Democrat from Raleigh County, had just wrapped up nearly 10 years as speaker of the House, and Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1980, had risen above the speculation of new leadership to become the 55th speaker of the House of Delegates.

Rumors swirled at that time about whether the long-time leadership team in place would assume the next steps or if the sometimes criticized "closed-door" style the House had known for years would be re-assembled.

 

Familiar Rumors

As the dust settles from the 2012 General Election, a cycle when Republicans made a monumental gain of 11 seats in the House of Delegates narrowing the divide to 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans, the political rumor mill is making familiar turns, sending up smoke signals of SOS for Thompson's reign as speaker.

Several names of potential future speakers have been bandied around the Capitol and the Capitol City by political gadflies and others. Some of those names include long-time members of the Chamber as well as newer members who are seen as more moderate than Thompson or others within his leadership circle. Some people also are talking about Republicans teaming with moderate Democrats to elect a conservative Democrat as speaker

"I think, initially, when there's a gain in an election like there has been for the Republicans, there's some jockeying for position — some asking to see and testing the waters, if you will," said Wyoming County Prosecuting Attorney Rick Staton during a phone interview Nov. 13.

Staton spent 16 years in the House of Delegates as a Democrat from Wyoming County and was the House Majority Leader under Kiss for three sessions.

"Ultimately, people see two things: they are well-suited with the current leadership, and it's not in the interest of the party to try to have infighting at a time when Republicans have made gains," Staton said.

Staton said he remembers a few times during his time at the Legislature when a few people said they would go up against Speaker Kiss, and even before his time, former Speaker Chuck Chambers. But those people always decided in the end not throw their hats into the ring.

"This is an outside observation, but Thompson's inner circle seems to be strong," Staton said. "I look to see more changes in the Legislature as they approach policy matters as opposed to the way they will approach leadership."

 

A Former Speaker's Memories

Kiss said in a Nov. 14 phone interview he could only recall one challenge to leadership during both his and Chambers' time as speaker combined.

"Everybody loves to talk about it, I guess," Kiss said. "The dynamic is definitely different this time; it's a much closer situation."

Kiss, an attorney with Bowles Rice, said the decisions about leadership are made in closed-door meetings, and although it's easy for the public and the press to speculate, the only people who know what will happen are those who are directly involved.

"Once the caucuses are determined, they will get in there and put forward the speaker candidate, and I recall a couple of instances where a few delegates would abstain and refuse to vote … but that's rare, and I don't recall anyone ever crossing lines," Kiss said. "One other thing I would say that gets lost here, and I've often told people, a lot of people think they can influence the speaker's race, but it's an unusual dynamic.

"It's a closed, party function, not a public function, and it's difficult to influence that from afar."

Kiss said he saw a lot of jockeying for leadership positions during his time as speaker, and it's one of the most important functions of the speaker.

He also pointed out that strong relationships are formed within the party during election season. Kiss said there was a separate, Democratic caucus when he was in office that had the goal of electing more Democrats to the Legislature. He said he and his leadership team traveled to other areas of the state to attend campaign events for other candidates and often gave their own surplus campaign funds as legal donations below the $1,000 limit to other candidates.

"Assuming they've done something similar to that, … going to other members' districts and raising money for them and actually giving them money in a proper way … creates a dynamic and a cohesion," Kiss said. "They may want to talk about conservative and liberal Democrats, but that creates a dynamic of the team sticking together."

Kiss said while the press enjoys discussing the different leadership possibilities, a change could be a possibility this time, but other problems would arise.

 

Speaker selection is simple math

"It's a simple math equation," Kiss said. "Obviously as the number gets closer and closer, you could see the possibility of a couple of people switching, but you wind up with a bunch of other issues.

"With one party, if several people are disgruntled and they switch, what's the end result going to be? Are they going to be voting for the other party's candidate for speaker?"

Kiss said if Republicans vote for a Democratic speaker, then the speaker will be saddled with deciding the chairmen for committees.

"It gets difficult to get through all that without having the whole thing collapse," Kiss said.

One man who was on the bottom during the Kiss years is former Minority Leader Charlie Trump who served in the House as a Republican from Morgan County and now practices law in Berkeley Springs.

"During the 14 years I served in the House of Delegates, we never had anything like the numbers they have now," Trump said during a Nov. 13 telephone interview. "But I can say this, going from a much lower number to 46 members for a minority party changes lots of things everywhere, or it at least has the potential."

Trump said he can't even imagine what it would be like to look around the House Chambers and see such a large number of fellow Republicans, but he's eager to observe what the balance will bring.

"I like to say that neither party has a monopoly on good ideas, nor does either party have a monopoly on crazy ideas, and if you have a majority and a minority who are fairly well balanced, I think it can provide a good check to prevent bad ideas from coming into existence."