This article originally provided by The Charleston Daily Mail

October 24, 2006

Candidates for House spar over money from Blankenship

Kris Wise
Daily Mail staff

Candidates for the House of Delegates 30th District sparred over more than the food tax, lobbing criticism at one another for accepting money from special interests and for sidestepping some serious issues.

During a meeting Monday with the Daily Mail editorial board, Delegate Danny Wells, a Democrat, referred to Republicans in the room as "Don Blankenship puppets," a nod to the multimillion-dollar campaign funded by the Massey Energy chief to kick out many of the Legislature's incumbents.

GOP candidates, including Judy Romano and Fred Joseph, defended accepting money from Blankenship, who has handed out multiple $1,000 contributions to many Republicans while spending millions more on issue-oriented campaigns pushing for defeat of Democrats in the district.

"I did take the $1,000 from Mr. Blankenship, and I appreciate it," said Romano, a secretary from South Charleston. "I think it evens out the playing field. We, as Republicans, don't get a lot of the money from the unions, from the different groups, and his involvement helps."

Joseph said Democrats have been outspending Republicans for many years for the House of Delegates' seats, accepting contributions from their own special interest groups, including plaintiffs lawyers, teachers and other unions.

Ira Bostic, a real estate broker and a Republican, said he was the only GOP candidate running for the district who had been offered money from Blankenship and turned it down.

"We have for years gotten onto Democrats for taking special interests' money, and I'm just not sure how different this is," Bostic said. "Sooner or later, you're going to have to pay the piper, and I didn't want that day to come for me."

Nancy Peoples Guthrie, a Democratic newcomer, said Blankenship's involvement in this year's elections sets a bad example for the state.

"We have provided the children of West Virginia with one of the worst civic lessons possible, which is that the interests of one man are more important than the needs and wants of the voters," said Guthrie, who once managed Sen. Robert Byrd's in-state office.

Guthrie herself wavered on one key issue in the day's debate, the passage of a bill this year that allows some accused drunken drivers to get a chance to keep their driver's license.

Guthrie said she didn't completely understand the intent or consequences of the bill, but given the chance she probably would have sided with Democrats who voted in favor of it.

The bill changed state policy so that anyone who pleads no contest to a drunken driving charge will no longer automatically lose his or her license. Much like a person who has pleaded not guilty, individuals now get an administrative hearing before the state and have a chance to retain their driving privileges.

The measure was supported by Democrats and widely bashed by GOP officeholders.

House Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores, D-Kanawha, has received flak during his re-election campaign for sponsoring the bill.

He stood behind the policy change Tuesday, citing concerns that the Division of Motor Vehicles had overstepped its bounds by automatically revoking some people's licenses.

The DMV based its old policy on a Supreme Court decision that Amores said was incorrectly interpreted.

"In this one case, they decided it was tolerable to do this without giving people a hearing," said Amores, a lawyer. "We didn't think it was. If a business or a corporation or some industry automatically lost a license, they'd be jumping stiff legged about that. The actions of the DMV in this case were just legally incorrect."

The issue has been one picked up by Blankenship, who's accused some lawmakers of working to put drunken drivers back on the road.

"I think it's ludicrous for Blankenship and his crew to suggest there's anyone in the Legislature who's for drunken driving," said Wells, a former Charleston Gazette sportswriter running for his second term.

Democrat Barbara Hatfield, another incumbent, said she voted for the bill because she's concerned that the rights of some drunken driving suspects, specifically those with disabilities, were being violated.

She said she'd been contacted by a man with speech and physical imparities who'd been wrongly picked up for DUI, lost his license and is now suing the state to regain his driving privileges.

"I'm not an attorney, but mistakes are made," Hatfield said. "We have a lot of people out there with neurological problems like this man. Not everybody that's cited for being drunk while driving is. I think this bill might have helped him from losing his license."

It was Hatfield's reasoning that struck a chord with GOP candidate Todd Carden, who said he was against allowing administrative hearings in any more drunken driving cases.

"Too many times laws are made or defeated because of one particular case," said Carden, a retired utilities analyst for the state Public Service Commission. "We're always citing one unusual instance, and I don't think that's the way we should be legislating."

Sharon Spencer was the only Democrat incumbent who said she voted against the bill.

Republican Mike Stuart, a lawyer who also owns and publishes the business magazine WV Inc, said incumbents had no defense for voting on the bill, which he said sympathizes with drunken drivers.

"It was a bad bill," Stuart said. "I think public safety should be a number one priority, and this bill doesn't do that."

Stuart, who followed his party's line on most issues, broke ranks with his fellow Republicans when the subject of table games was raised.

Candidates were asked whether they supported a referendum that would allow some counties, which house the state's racetracks and gaming centers, to vote on adding casino-style games.

Stuart was the lone Republican to say he would consider such a proposal, but only if it were paired with tax cuts or a reduction in the number of video lottery terminals around West Virginia.

"If it's table games alone, I'll vote no," Stuart said. "But if we can exchange some of these gray machines for destination-place gambling, at the end of the day we have to have all options on the table."

Democrat Corey Palumbo, a lawyer, was one of just a few Democrats who said he would not vote in favor of allowing some counties to decide on table games.

"It's not my belief that it's constitutionally permissible," Palumbo said. "The only way I feel we can do it with a straight face is to do a statewide referendum and let all the voters in West Virginia decide."

Democrat Bonnie Brown said that more than a decade ago she voted three different times against the proposal to allow video lottery machines in some state venues, and she still believes West Virginia might be going too far in promoting gambling.

"I know we need and rely on the revenue, but what bothers me is to see these fancy, slick ads on television promoting the lottery," Brown said. "I don't know how far we want to take that."

GOP candidate Kim Holmes, a budget secretary for Kanawha County Schools, said the state should reverse the trend toward relying on gambling revenue to keep finances balanced.

"That's not who we are in West Virginia," Holmes said. "It hurts too many people, so let's stop it here."

Joseph, who works as a building manager for the Upper Kanawha Valley Enterprise Community, said allowing table games anywhere in the state would further oppress the poorest population.

"It's a back-door tax," Joseph said. "And where does it end? Next thing we'll be doing is walking down the street naked."

Phil Raines, a Republican insurance agent, said he thought lawmakers needed to shift financial debate from the boosting lottery revenue to eliminating inconsistencies in how businesses and private citizens are taxed.

Like most of the GOP candidates, Raines was for an immediate repeal of the state's 5 percent food tax, which Democrats want to reduce more gradually.

"I think it's a burden on families that we need to get rid of," Raines said. "Essentially when you're looking at the 5 percent of the cost, that's like 18 days a year of free food. I think for most families that would mean something."

Sharon Spencer, a teacher and a longtime delegate, said she began proposing bills a decade ago that would immediately do away with the state's food tax.

She, too, expressed concerns the state has focused too much on boosting lottery funds rather than overhauling its tax system to appeal to new residents and in turn generate more revenue.

"I'm not sure table games is a done deal, and I really think we have to be looking at changing our tax base to start attracting these new businesses," Spencer said. "We have a lot of loopholes to close."

Contact writer Kris Wise at or 348-1244.


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