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The Reigster-Herald - Gubernatorial Candidate Profiles: Democrat Natalie Tennant

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Editor's Note: Through May 4, The Register-Herald will publish a daily story featuring in-depth interviews we conducted with candidates seeking the office of governor of West Virginia. All of the 16 people who filed were issued an invitation to appear before our editorial board, and 14 of those came to Beckley to meet with us and discuss some of the key issues in West Virginia. The stories will appear in the order in which the candidates were interviewed. Today's story focuses on Democratic candidate Natalie Tennant of Charleston.

1 -- It certainly appears that Marcellus shale regulation will remain a major topic of interest for the next several years. What are the key features that you see need to be included in West Virginia law in order to best serve the interests of all the parties involved?

One, I first want to say that I'm frustrated, as are many West Virginians, that it was addressed but not a solution found in the legislative session. Because, as you all know, it was the major topic going into it. So I'm disappointed, and I'm frustrated it wasn't addressed. And what we need to do with Marcellus shale... Yes, I understand the opportunity that we have with it, the economic boom that we have. Folks talk about it being a game changer and a gold mine underneath West Virginia. So I certainly understand that. But what we need to be able to do is have responsible development. And what I mean by responsible development, if there's more regulations that need to be in play in terms of serving the communities and making sure the communities are strong in which you're having the drilling, that the environment is addressed, the water is kept safe and the roads are in good shape as they were when the drilling started. That needs to be addressed and in respect to the surface owners, the landowners as well. So that has to be part of it. The other aspect of how we use Marcellus shale to diversify what we're going to continue to do in West Virginia comes with innovation 20/20 fund I have in place and want to see some of that money from the severance tax be used for technology and math education to building up our communities in which they were drilled and for really diversifying our economy. Because I believe you have these funds now, and we have revenue from it now. When we talk about research and development, that's certainly what it is. You're researching and developing what may be taking place. The revenue might not be coming so quickly from technology, but in four or five years, we'll see the rewards of that. So that's why we're able to invest now from what we use with Marcellus from research and development, hence, having a diverse economy. And with all of that, and this will be the theme that you'll see out of this coming from me, what you've seen in the secretary of state's office and what you'll see under a Tennant administration, is innovation and accountability. And with all that, when we show and we ask for revenue to go into this specific area, this fund, you're going to see how it's used, because I will put that on the Internet for folks to be able to see how their tax dollars are being used and how their state is being developed. Because as governor, I won't let West Virginians and I won't let the state of West Virginia be taken advantage of.

2 -- As the debt of OPEB continues to rise, what steps need to be taken to stem the tide and begin reversing the trend?

Quite simply, we need to address it. We can't let it go through the Legislature like we did. And I have shown that leadership as secretary of state. I paid my OPEB debt. I paid the additional required contribution -- that's the ARC -- that's in addition to the monthly per employee per month that is paid. So, first off, you have to address it. I paid it. It so happens that I had a budget meeting within the next couple of weeks. They said, "Natalie, that's good; we're glad you paid it."

But in a sense, they told me it might be going into a black hole, because nowhere has it been directed to address the problem. In addition to doing that, I said, "I'm coming back, then I'm going to come back and find a solution to that."

In addition to that, I have that as part of my budget line. When it says paying your OPEB debt, I have about $103,000 to pay toward that. So, first off, I have addressed. And that's what makes me different. That's what makes me a better leader and a better candidate for governor. Because when you have these issues and you have the opportunity to lead, what have I done? I've addressed the problem. So, with that being said, I don't think it's appropriate to have your active employees working against your retired employees. And so it's important to address this problem and take care of it now. What I want to see is an independent audit of how much is truly owed. Do we owe the $8 billion? That's what I've been hearing. That's what I'm ready to address. We need to address that. Then we have to be able to account for how we're going to pay it.

3 -- Transportation remains a significant issue, especially in our region. What specifically will you do as governor to try to resolve the funding crisis as it relates to financing new construction and providing for adequate maintenance of our existing roads and bridges?

We have to address that. Those are main concerns when we talk about infrastructure. And infrastructure -- roads, sewer, even broadband, when I talk about infrastructure. And the roads are so very important. There was an attempt to address it. Was it the right manner? There can be debate back and forth of, you know, is it a gradual? But money has to be targeted to fixing our roads. And this is where we can work hand-in-hand with development and an economic boom that we might have through Marcellus shale. When we talk about building up our communities, the roads are so important. And every time I come to Raleigh County, no matter where I'm talking in or to whom I'm talking, folks are always mentioning the roads. So I know it's a concern here. And I get that when I go back up home in Marion County, so we will find funding to address keeping our infrastructure strong and addressing the problems we have with our bridges as well. In some cases, it could be a crisis situation for some of our bridges. So we will dedicate funds that will make sure our infrastructure is improved.

(Would you have vetoed the bill raising motor vehicle fees to generate an additional $40 million for the highway fund?)

Had I been governor, I would have worked in even with the Legislature. We know we have the separation of the branches. At the same time, that's what leadership is about, is getting into bringing folks together. I would have done that certainly with Marcellus folks and with the Division of Motor Vehicles. This is a tough time for folks in West Virginia, and raising taxes, whether they're called taxes or fees, and in this case they were called fees, is difficult for folks. And I realize they hadn't been addressed in many years. It could have been a gradual approach to be able to work that in. I would have worked to make sure that would have been addressed and address it also for the roads in a budget process.

(So you would have supported some increase in the fees?)

Depending on what the level would have been. But it couldn't have been that high, as it was. It was such a stark increase from what it was.

4 -- One of former Gov. Joe Manchin's major platform issues was education reform. While much was discussed, no wide-ranging changes to the way we educate our children have been made in the recent past. What are your plans when it comes to education reform?

Education is near and dear to my heart. It's who I am and how I was raised. My dad is a retired principal. My mom is a retired teacher. Education is so important. But even beyond that, I'm the youngest of seven children. And including my siblings and their spouses, 11 out of 14 of them are educators. So I see and hear what is taking place on the front lines in education. So education is near and dear to my heart. And I have the expectation -- I even started out in the family business. I obviously couldn't make it in the family business, because now I was a broadcaster and now an elected official. So I didn't make it in education. But one of my classes I remember specifically was curriculum and instruction. They said that teachers need to instill the power of self-prophecy for those students. If you believe that you can learn, you're going to learn. If you don't think you can learn, you're not going to learn. So my point, when it comes to education, we can have the best education system in West Virginia. To get to that, how do we do that? We bring folks together, and we expect accountability -- accountability from students, from teachers, from administrators, from board members, from the community and from parents as well. So that's one aspect for bringing folks together.

Some of the reforms that I see that are important for West Virginia are, when we think reforms you think you have to do these huge, sweeping measures. But they can be truancy; let's address that. Let's address discipline because teachers need to be able to have the control in their classroom, and they need to have the backup to that. When they have disciplined a student, they should be backed up by the administration, and there should be clear-cut guidelines for that.

That's part of the reforms. Technology. I'm about using technology, but it doesn't do you any good if the teachers don't know how to use it. So that is an important reform. You're going to put this in place, but you're also going to have tech support for them to be able to accomplish that.

I also think it's important, you know, we are holding teachers accountable. I can give pay raises to teachers, but there has to be accountability and these reforms that go along with that. When you talk about teacher evaluation, it's not just one aspect that should be put in place to evaluate teachers. It has to be an overall aspect in terms of observations, portfolios, how they work in a classroom, some from student tests. But this is where you bring folks to the table and you work hand-in-hand. The American Federation of Teachers, the national group, they realize that evaluations are important, and they have started to develop those. And you work hand-in-hand with that approach.

The other one is innovation zones. We don't teach like when I was in high school 25 years ago. We certainly don't use the same phones we used 25 years ago. We probably shouldn't be teaching the same way. We have to be able to use these innovation zones to work with how communities develop them, and that's what innovation zones were about. We have about maybe a little bit more than 19 at this point going through Phase Two.

Those are the different aspects that I talk about education, but the paramount is believing and saying we can have the best system and then all working together to get there.

(How do you feel about the concept of charter schools?)

I know that is a question I get from everybody. Charter schools, in terms of education, are not going to be the panacea. But I always believe that if you're using public moneys, they should go to public schools to serve the public. That's why I push innovation zones more than anything. It is a group coming together, as we talked about, that, whether it's the teachers, the administrator, or the community, to say, "This is how we want to conduct our education," and be part of it.

(What would you do to reverse this alarming dropout rate in West Virginia?)

As far as the dropout rate, this is where you have a little innovation and you have the accountability and the transparency of education to see how we're serving our students. You can use longitudinal evaluations of students. And that's a long word, but quite simply, it's tracking the students as they go through school, and it tracks the students, and it tracks the teacher as well to see how they're responding to various types of education. So I think that's an aspect you can use to really track students and see if they are vulnerable to drop out. You need to address it now. Part of that goes with truancy. That's how that can work hand-in-hand with truancy. A couple of years ago, we had a system where social workers would make the phone call. It is no longer funded. But when you talk to educators, you see that there was a very successful program, and they'd like to get back to that, too. Because we're going to either address it while these young people are in school, or we address it later when they don't have jobs and they don't have the skills they need. That's why we have to put most of our budget into education. Because we're either going to pay for it now or we're going to pay for it later. Why don't we have skilled workers who can help in a diverse economy? Even when we talk about education, too, we have wonderful vo-tech schools here across West Virginia. We have wonderful community and technical colleges and trade schools. Those are aspects where we can keep kids in schools if they feel like they can get an edge credit or a dual credit and then, when they graduate, be so close to an associate degree at a community and technical college.

5 -- We are constantly told, and are witnessing every day, the far-reaching impacts of drug abuse. What will you do as governor to address the epidemic, and do you have any specific plans for interdiction efforts?

You know, this one is a huge concern of mine. I worry about the drug epidemic. And I worry about the health epidemic in terms of obesity and how we take care of ourselves, health-wise. I know the drug epidemic, and you think about this, and this is a scary thought: It does not discriminate. It's all across the board. No matter who you are, you could become addicted to prescription medication. It's killing people. It tears families apart. It's driving up our crime. And it's overcrowding our jails as well. Obviously, that's very important to me. And what I'm going to do is bring together the medical community, the pharmacists, the educators, the judicial community, in terms of law enforcement, as well, and we address it with programs to make sure we get the illegal drugs off the street, that we also educate folks and that we have rehabilitation in place. Because it's another do-it-now or do-it-later aspect, that it costs us less to rehabilitate than it does to house someone.

I was worried when I came down here to talk about what Steve Tanner is doing. But he and I had a great conversation about addressing this problem and how he wants to use it too. There are some doctors who use the opium blockers, and while it's not been fully approved by the federal government, depending on if it's an implant or if it's taken, but you can use an opium blocker in cooperation with rehabilitation and counseling. And then you get these folks coming to day report center, they've got their opium blocker. They're coming to day centers, they're being required to get their GED, they're being required to work and clean up around the area. And it's folks like Steve Tanner, who's the sheriff of Raleigh County, who's going to work with a governor like Natalie Tennant to help solve the problems. As I say, you know, I come and I have a plan for how we can move West Virginia forward, and it's not a perfect plan. And we don't necessarily want it to be a perfect plan, because then, how would you work with folks to find the solution for different areas? I bring folks together and work in that aspect.

Please highlight the key points of your gubernatorial platform.

My key points are, what you see is what you get in terms of who I am and what type of leader I am. I offer, and what makes me different is, that I do govern and lead with accountability and transparency. And that's the focus that you will have in a Tennant administration. I have released my economic plan that's called Innovation and Accountability. It really is a blueprint for how we're going to diversify. And I think that truly shows who I am, when one, my plan is more detailed. It's more substantial. It has a more results-oriented approach than any other plan you will find. So I'm putting it out on the line for folks to look at, read, criticize, do whatever they want. Because that's what I'm expecting from state government, also. What you'll find is I offer Innovation 20/20 when we talk about how we're going to address our economy, how we're going to bring folks and bring manufacturing, labor, education, small-business folks together, then accountability and transparency. I will have a sunshine portal, which will allow the taxpayers and the people of West Virginia to be able to go online, in simple language, plain language, to see how West Virginia spends its money. Because I'm the type of person, and -- I told you guys this -- that I don't think that this is my government. I only play a small role in it. I'm allowed to be secretary of state. I'm allowed to be a leader. I think that if people aren't intimidated by their government, if they know about their government, then they're more inclined to be involved, and there's where you get the problem-solving measures, too. So innovation and accountability is very important to me. That will be a hallmark of a Tennant administration, because transparency is, you want to talk about a game changer? Transparency in state government is a game changer. And with that, I just show how I am a fighter on the front lines for small business in West Virginia. You see those results from the secretary of state's office. In two years, we've doubled the number of online filings for small businesses. That's using technology. We're one of 16 states that offer services through the secretary of state's office to be able to do online, so folks can get back to the business of doing business, to focus on their product, and not paperwork. That's the type of innovation and forward thinking that you will see from me and the type of energy, because I'm not the type of person who plays politics as usual. I'm going to go, and if I see a problem, just like I did OPEB, I'm going to address it. I'm going to roll up my sleeves. That's what makes me different. That's what makes me a better candidate. And that's what we need now in this opportunity that West Virginia has.

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