Governor primary proposed for June

January 25, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin asked the Legislature on Tuesday to replace party conventions with a June 20 primary for the court-ordered special election for governor, but not all lawmakers are on board.

House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley raised several questions about the proposal following the Senate version's introduction. The House version should follow this week.

"In north-central West Virginia, I've had nobody crying out for a primary election," said Miley, D-Harrison. "There are mixed opinions and, quite frankly, considerable concerns about any legislation we pass this year."

Miley's Senate counterpart supports holding a primary, though he wants to review the bill's details.

"I would certainly want it to be on the (committee's) agenda this week," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha.

A Supreme Court decision compelled Tomblin last week to proclaim an Oct. 4 general election for governor. The justices ruled unanimously that he could act as governor for no more than one year. An elected governor must take office by Nov. 15, the ruling said.

That's the anniversary of Tomblin, as Senate president, taking over the chief executive powers from now-U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who left with more than two years in his second term as governor.

The state constitution calls on the Senate president — Tomblin, in this case — to act as governor upon such a vacancy. But Tomblin had concluded that state law did not allow for the next election for that office until 2012. That stance sparked a legal challenge that led to the Supreme Court's Jan. 18 decision.

The decision left intact the current process for special elections, which sets party conventions instead of a primary for nominating candidates. The justices noted that the Legislature, which began its 60-day session on Jan. 12, could change that within the confines of their overall ruling.

Tuesday's legislation would allow Tomblin to proclaim a special primary upon its passage. Candidates would then have 10 days to file for the race. The chief elections office, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant would issue emergency orders, if necessary, to preserve voting rights in such areas as oversees absentee balloting.

Those wishing to run include several of the key players in the succession debate: Tomblin; Tennant; House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne; and acting Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, who is overseeing that chamber while Tomblin focuses on the chief executive's duties.

Supporters of holding a primary include GOP lawmakers from both chambers. Citing the potential cost of that vote, the state AFL-CIO on Tuesday endorsed sticking with party conventions.

Miley cited Tomblin's initial position and court-mandated about-face among his concerns regarding the bill.

"He's wanting us to change the rules in the middle of the game, and I know I've heard from many of my constituents that they don't want us changing the law to fit anyone's personal political agenda," Miley said.

Tomblin spokeswoman Kimberly Osborne called the proposal good public policy.

"It is hard to fathom how some could believe that the people of this state would prefer a convention to a primary for the 2011 election," Osborne said. "Letting the people decide who should be governor is hardly a personal political agenda."

The House chairman also argued that other issues take a higher priority than this measure, including Marcellus Shale gas drilling rules, education-related proposals and a possible plan to phase out the sales tax on groceries.

"We're not going to rush into anything," Miley said. "We're not going to be pressured because of the urgency that's being created by people outside the Legislature."

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