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Panhandle lawmakers weigh in on filling Byrd's post

July 12, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- At least one Eastern Panhandle lawmaker would like to hold off on a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat of the late Robert C. Byrd, who died June 28 at the age of 92.

Del. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said Monday he would like Gov. Joe Manchin to remain the state's chief executive for a while longer, and he proposed that the election to fill Byrd's seat be held next year to avoid claims that the proposed special election is unfair to all political parties.

"We really need the governor ... he's done more to help us in West Virginia to get jobs here than governors beforehand," Blair said.

The rush to put Byrd's seat on the ballot Nov. 2 benefits Manchin's expected candidacy and created "a path of least resistance" for the governor to win, Blair said. It also opens the door to lawsuits by individuals and political parties that Blair said are left at a disadvantage by a shortened election cycle.

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If Manchin were to win, Blair said he expects a special election for governor would be held next year, posing more unnecessary costs to taxpayers.

Manchin is proposing that political primaries be held in September for Byrd's seat and that the nominees square off in the Nov. 2 general election.

"From the outside looking in, it sounds as if it's being orchestrated," said Blair, the GOP's nominee to challenge state Sen. John Unger in the November election.

Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, said he feels strongly that the U.S. Senate seat should be on the general election ballot to protect West Virginia from hearing the "giant sucking sound" of Washington undoing Byrd's efforts for the state.

"We don't have the luxury of delaying," said Unger, who also pointed to pending Senate votes on extending jobless benefits, cap-and-trade legislation that could impact the state's coal industry, and health care.

"Everybody assumes it's going to be Gov. Manchin (who wins the seat)," Unger said. "It may or may not be him."

If Manchin were to win the special election for the Senate seat, state Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin would serve as acting governor for an unspecified amount of time as required by the state constitution, according to state Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson.

Snyder introduced a study resolution in the Legislature this year to examine gubernatorial succession, but it died in the House of Delegates on the last day of the regular session.

If Tomblin were to become acting governor after the Nov. 2 election, under current law, he would have to be re-elected as Senate president when the new term of the Legislature begins next year to remain acting governor, Snyder said.

Snyder doubts Tomblin would be challenged for the Senate presidency, but said he wouldn't rule it out given the nature of politics.

To address the gubernatorial succession issue, Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said he believes the state constitution should be amended to elect a lieutenant governor beginning in 2012 and eliminate the state Senate president's current succession route to the governor's mansion.

The new elected lieutenant governor would be appointed to an existing Cabinet secretary post in the governor's administration and would be paid the salary that comes with the job instead of not having any specific duties like in other states, Doyle said.

The two would run as a ticket in elections like the U.S. president and vice president, Doyle said.

Doyle said he supports a separate constitutional change that would allow Tomblin to become acting governor, but would require him to step down from his Senate seat.

The constitutional changes would have to be approved by the voters, but could be placed on the ballot in November, Doyle said.

Unger said he couldn't imagine that Manchin would resign to run for the Senate seat, but acknowledged such a move could spare taxpayers the expense of a special election to replace the governor.

"I'm really open-minded to what people have to suggest for the gubernatorial (succession)," Unger said.

Unger said he is not necessarily in favor of spending $4 million to $6 million on a special election next year to fill Manchin's unexpired term, which ends in 2012.

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