CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As he sat in the executive meeting room of the governor’s office at the state capitol, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin reflected on his first encounter with the building.
“I went to the supply closet to get some pens and pads. I was 22 years old and the youngest member of the legislature. The clerk there thought I was a page and said, ‘Who are those for?’ When I told her they were for me, she asked, ‘Well who are you?'” Laughed Tomblin as he lives out the last couple of months in the highest elected office in state government.
Tomblin won the House of Delegates seat in the 1974 primary election. Coming from a political family in Logan County, it may not have seemed odd for him to seek office. But Tomblin didn’t decide it’s what he wanted to do until the Christmas break of his senior year at West Virginia University. He was home for the holidays and broke the news to his parents. They gave him their support.
“It was a big week of my life,” said Tomblin. “The election was on a Tuesday and I ended up leading the ticket with four candidates to be nominated. That following Saturday I graduated from WVU and became the first person in my family to ever graduate from college.”
During those days the primary election was the big one in Logan County. The general election was largely a formality with little to any Republican opposition in the coalfield districts. He won the seat. Tomblin learned the ropes at the legislature in his first term. It took a while for anyone to take him seriously. He told the story about overhearing some fellow lawmakers in the chamber talking about retirement options.
“I went and talked to the clerk, Mr. Blankenship, he’d been there for many years and I asked him if I needed to sign up for retirement,” Tomblin explained. “He laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry about it boy, you’re not going to be around here long enough to draw any retirement!'”
But, in January, Tomblin will hand over the reins of state government to a new leader. It will mark the end of 42 years in elected office. He served three terms in the House. Ran for the Senate, won, and eventually rose through the ranks to the highest leadership position in the body. He probably could have remained Senate president for as long as the Democrats maintained control. He admitted the thought of running for governor had crossed his mind, but the timing never seemed to match up until the option was largely forced upon him.
“Probably most people elected think about that possibility,” he said. “But then when you become Senate president you realize that’s a serious position because you’re next in line if there happens to be a vacancy.”
During his tenure, the vacancy happened. Longtime U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd died. Then Gov. Joe Manchin appointed Carte Goodwin to the seat, but announced he would resign from the governor’s office to run for the remainder of Byrd’s term. It thrust Tomblin into the governor’s position, but nobody was sure for how long. After a lot of political wrangling it finally took a Supreme Court decision to determine Tomblin would serve as Acting Governor until voters made the decision on who would fill Manchin’s unexpired term. Through the primary and then general election, Tomblin juggled a lot of plates. He was Acting Governor, Lt. Governor, Senate President, and Senator from Logan.
“It was different,” he said. “Technically I was still president of the Senate and did go up and preside a few times just to let them know I was still around.”
Soon after winning the first election with only a year left in the term, Tomblin announced he would seek reelection and the process started over again. He won reelection. However, as complicated as his ascension to the office had been, the complications which awaited him were far more severe.
The state’s coal industry took a steep nose dive. The first couple of years the financial setbacks were offset by the increasing production of natural gas with drilling ramping up in the Marcellus and Utica Shale. Soon however, the safety net was lost.
“We knew coal was already in decline and then all of a sudden the price of natural gas went through the floor.” said Tomblin. “We were producing 30 percent more natural gas last year than we were the prior year, but as far as the big drop in price we didn’t see it coming. I don’t think anybody did.”
The revenue shortfalls caused tense budget times. Tomblin cut the budget mid-year and fought with the newly elected Republican majority in the legislature over a push to increase taxes. There was severe resistance and constant pressure to cut more even amid the reluctant passage of an increase in the tobacco tax. It remains a problem which awaits the next governor.
“I’ve said it several times, the next administration that comes in in January is going to be facing a big hole of 200 or 300 million dollars or more,” said Tomblin. “Some people think they can cut their way out of it, but I’ve already cut 10 percent or over $400 million. Unless we have just a rapid rebound in the price of natural gas, the new administration is going to have to be looking at additional revenues.”
The budget was a major problem, but it wasn’t the only one. Tomblin took office as the state also found itself in the grips of a drug epidemic like none seen before. The southern coalfields were awash in illegal prescription pills, the Kanawha Valley was busting two or three meth labs every day, and street drugs were growing in the panhandles. All across the state more and more were getting hooked on something. Tomblin tried to address the task and enlisted the legislature to help.
Together they passed bills to limit the sale of necessary ingredients for meth. Pill mills were shut down and more eradication work was done to help stem the tide of drugs rolling into the state. But even as Tomblin leaves office heroin remains a growing problem on the streets of West Virginia, imported from larger cities and gripping residents here. The other task became how to handle those who have become hooked on a substance. It required a change in thinking.
“The whole mindset has changed,” he said. “We’ve got to provide help. We can’t just let society die off. We have to get people the help they need. There has to be a realization this is a medical condition and people need treatment and not jail time.”
Like most governors, Tomblin has dealt with his share of natural disasters. Isolated tornadoes and floods in the southern coalfields were his first experience, but then came the 2012 Derecho.
“I don’t think a handful of people in West Virginia had ever heard that term before,” he said. “It took a couple of days around here for all of us to learn how to pronounce it correctly.”
Nobody is in the dark about the term now. The sudden and unexpected storm left 53 of the state’s 55 counties in a near blackout for days. There were complications getting cooling stations set up, positioning generators, communications were lost as many towers relied upon for radio transmission were lost. Tomblin was determined to learn from the situation.
“We did an after event report to determine what we did right and what we did wrong,” he said. “It made us much more prepared when Sandy came along.”
Sandy was a Superstorm which struck the east coast with a hurricane, but dumped feet of snow on West Virginia on Halloween. The heavy wet snow accumulated on trees still full of leaves and became an instant nightmare for power companies. However, unlike the Derecho, Sandy came with several days warning and allowed Tomblin to declare a state of emergency and pre-position National Guard units and equipment in areas where they could get started cutting downed trees and helping make repairs soon after the storm had passed.
The disaster which tested the administration more than any other wasn’t a natural disaster at all. The 2014 Freedom Industries Chemical Spill left 300,000 residents in nine counties without drinkable water. The state ordered a “do not use” advisory to customers of West Virginia American Water Company who’s water had the aroma of licorice. The biggest problem was a lack of information about the chemical we all know now as MCHM. When the spill at Freedom Industries leaked into the Elk River, hardly anybody knew much about the chemical, including the Centers for Disease Control.
“Most frustrating was trying to find out what MCHM was,” he said. “I eventually wound up having to call the White House and telling the DHHS Secretary Sebilius she had to give us some help down here. We needed to know what to tell our people.”
The most tragic of all of the disasters came earlier this year when floodwaters rose and claimed nearly two dozen lives in West Virginia and left thousands homeless. The state continues today to repair and rebuild from the floods of June 23rd.
Tuesday is the first general election in a long time Tomblin hasn’t had much to do or worry about. He can go to bed early on election night and not fret about the outcome. He’ll be out of office in January, but isn’t tipping his hand about what comes next.
“I’ve got a lot of options right now. After 42 years in this building, it’s going to be different, but I’ll still be around,” he said. “West Virginia has been good to me and it’s my home. I’ll still try to contribute in one way or another. I’ll still be around.”