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Five of six Democrats running for governor attend Martinsburg gathering

Event was organized by the chairman of the Berkeley County Democratic Executive Committee

April 29, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, WVa. — Five of the six Democrats running for their party's nomination for governor in the Oct. 4 special election were in Martinsburg Friday night trying to round up support for their upcoming May 14 primary.

 All told, 16 West Virginians — eight Republicans, six Democrats and two from the Mountain Party — will square off in the primary.

They all hope to fill the vacancy created when Joe Manchin left the governor's mansion to take over the U.S. Senate seat of the late Robert C. Byrd in November.

 Friday's gathering in the McFarland House was organized by Niles Bernick, chairman of the Berkeley County Democratic Executive Committee. He said about 110 of the party faithful paid $30 to attend the function.

 Gubernatorial candidates attending Friday's function included Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin of Logan County who is serving as acting governor; acting Senate President Jeffrey Kessler of Marshall County; Speaker of the House of Delegates Rick Thompson of Wayne County;  State Treasurer John Perdue of Kanawha County; and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant also of Kanawha County.

 Tennant arrived late because of prior commitments.

 The sixth Democrat running for governor, Arne Moltis of Kanawha County, is rarely seen at such functions, Bernick said.

 Kessler noted the growing importance of the Eastern Panhandle. Much of the state's tax revenue comes from the region, including the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, he said.

 "The Eastern Panhandle needs equal and fair representation in Charleston, and I won't forget that as governor," Kessler said.

  Kessler wants to set aside 25 percent of the added severance tax revenues the state expects to get once natural gas drilling begins.

"If we had put aside just 1 percent of the coal severance tax since 1980 and not touched it, we'd have  $3.7 billion in the bank now," he said.

 Tomblin has served in the West Virginia Legislature, first in the House then the Senate, since 1975.

 He said he's proud of where West Virginia stands financially compared to most other states.

"Businesses are looking at West Virginia like they never have before," he said. "West Virginia is a shining star around the nation."

 He cited the recent groundbreaking in Berkeley County of Macy's $150 million Internet order center to open next year that promises 1,200 new jobs.

 The state is cutting and will continue to cut taxes, he said.

 Thompson said that while the state government budget is in good shape, he's worried about household budgets.

"The state's unemployment rate is 9.7 percent, and we can't afford that. We're lagging behind the rest of the nation. West Virginia is the first to go into a recession and the last to come out of one," he said.

 The answer is more jobs, he said. One way he proposes to get them is by eliminating payroll taxes for new employees in small businesses for their first year on the job.

 Party registration in Berkeley County is about even between Democrats and Republicans, said William Yearout, vice chairman of the county's Democratic executive committee.

"There's a slight Republican edge," he said.

 Republicans have strong support among the 40 to 55 age group who tend to be more conservative about taxes and the size of government. Young voters and seniors tend to support the Democratic Party, he said.

Independents make up about a third of the county's registered voters, he said.

 "The big story with both parties is that voter turnout is low compared to other large counties in the state," he said.

He said Berkeley County has 104,000 people but  only 16 percent of its registered voters cast ballots compared to 40 percent who do in counties with populations of 75,000, he said.

 Yearout said he believes that that more commuters are living in the county now, and they tend not to vote.

 Early voting for the May 14 primary is under way Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at county courthouses through May 11.

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