Acting Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, says he isn't sure if he will run in the special election for governor
By Walt Williams
Asked why he wanted to be acting Senate president, Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, gave the answer he has been giving since he first announced he was seeking the job: to avoid constitutional questions about separation of powers while Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin serves as acting governor.
Pressed about why he truly wanted the job, about why he wanted to shake up the Senate's power structure and take over one of the most prominent roles in state government, Kessler said because he had earned the trust and respect of his fellow senators.
"They know having seen me in my leadership in a major committee they were confident that I could fill the role of presiding officer of the Senate," he said. "I'm not afraid of taking this Senate down the path of trying to undertake some bold initiatives, whether it is education reform or energy reform or whatever. I truly believe we are at a crossroads in this state."
Kessler, 55, took over the leadership role in January after convincing other Democrats to break from Senate rules and create the position of acting president to serve in Tomblin's absence. He then began to restructure all of the chamber's committees, booting longtime leaders such as Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, and Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, and installing his own appointees.
It was a surprisingly strategic political move by a man who has only had a short run in the Senate compared to the person he replaced. Kessler was appointed to the Senate in 1997 and has won re-election to his seat ever since. Tomblin, on the other hand, has served for more than three decades.
One thing they both have in common is they both want to be governor. Kessler was one of the first candidates to announce his intention to run in the 2012 elections and already has a campaign website online.
But Kessler said he had not made up his mind about whether he would run in the special election later this year. He had filed no paperwork to that effect by the time The State Journal went to press.
Kessler's coup in the Senate didn't happen without stepping on toes. The move angered those who found themselves smacked down the leadership ladder. They have questioned the constitutionality of the Senate's action, and Chafin is rumored to be considering a lawsuit. He has not returned multiple phone calls seeking comment.
So far, those arguments have not resulted in any slumps in the legislative process, although the first month of any session usually is a slow time for passing bills. The Senate easily passed a bill setting the special election dates for governor, for instance.
"The last time we had any substantive votes out there, they seemed to be passing 33 to nothing," Kessler said. " Now the organizational make-up may still cause a bit of sore feelings perhaps, but the last vote we have 24 to 9 with the president not here and absent."
Kessler said the remainder of the session would focus on education reform and energy issues, such as legislation dealing with drilling in the Marcellus Shale. He compared the legislative process to brewing coffee, with the steady stream of bills like drips of water from a percolator.
"The water has got to be brought to a boil," he said. "We're starting to get there."
One issue confronting lawmakers is the state's huge debt obligations, although Kessler is optimistic that will be addressed. West Virginia has a $8 billion unfunded liability in state employee retiree benefits over 30 years, which the acting Senate president believes is manageable. It is a different tone than some of his fellow senators, who have said the liability is the most pressing problem facing the state. "We'll tackle it," he said. "We'll find a funding source and pay it down."
Kessler said he would rather "look at the bright side of things." The state's rainy day fund has more than $600 million in it; the state's bond rating is up; housing starts are up all over the country; there were more people hired in January than the month before.
He carries that optimistic attitude into the race for governor. With seemingly every political leader either running for the office or thinking about it, Kessler said that ambition is not a bad thing. It's good to shake up things once in a while, to get some new blood in new positions, as, he pointed out, happened in the Senate.
"The fact there are some people moving up or laterally or falling out by attrition I think is refreshing," he said. "That's what democracy is all about: fresh ideas moving in. Sometimes if you give new folks a shot, you'll be surprised to see what happens."