Newly elected delegate missing end of session because of commitment to National Guard
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Josh Nelson is a man of service.
The 26-year-old Boone County man spent five years in the Marine Corps reserves.
He served as provider for his wife, Brittany, going to work in the coal mines when their son, Elijah, was born.
In November he was elected to the House of Delegates as his district's first Republican, to the bewilderment and continued shock of local Democrats.
However, today marks Nelson's last day of service for the current session of the Legislature. On Saturday he leaves to fulfill a training obligation with the West Virginia Air National Guard.
Nelson is slated to come back in May, but the time away from his family will hurt.
"I'm going to miss his second birthday and my (fifth) wedding anniversary. I hope that they'll forgive me," he said, looking down at his desk in an office buried in the Capitol.
Ever since he was a little boy, Nelson wanted to fly.
"To be honest with you, my grandfather was a pilot," said the delegate, whose office is adorned with coal helmets, lunch pails and a toy bulldog in a Marine uniform.
"He lives in Greenbrier County, and when I was a young man, he took me flying — I was about 4 years old or so — at the Greenbrier airport over there. He took me up and let me take the controls slightly, let me steer around a little bit and I fell in love with flying."
That evolved to a desire to become a Marine fighter pilot. Nelson joined the Individual Ready Reserve and served as a combat engineer, or what he called "a grunt with explosives." The infantry position also requires demolition work.
But he didn't give up on his desire to fly.
While serving in the Marine reserves, he worked toward and eventually received a degree in aeronautics from Liberty University, a Virginia-based Christian school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
He also developed an interest in politics and served two terms as class president. But both political and piloting aspirations took a back seat when his wife became pregnant.
'Walked in their shoes'
Like so many in southern West Virginia, need led Nelson to the coal mines.
"I had to do something, because I had my own college debt coming in that I had to pay for, and I told my wife I was going to go back into the Marines active duty, and she said, 'No, you're not,' " Nelson said.
"So I ended up coming home and going to work in the mines, like my dad, granddad and great granddaddy."
It was during his time in the mines that Nelson learned about the Air National Guard.
He said he kept running into people who served with the Guard and told him he could still fly with the unit. Eventually he was persuaded and transferred from the reserves to the Air National Guard.
As for his decision to seek public office, he said he has always kept up with the news and grew increasingly upset with what he considered infringements on the coal industry by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
When exiting the mine where he worked one day, he decided it was time to run. After consulting with his wife, Nelson said he drove to Charleston still covered in coal soot and registered as a candidate.
Boone County Democratic Party Chair Sue Ann Zickafoose is a little skeptical of that story line.
"I'm telling you it was the money," said Zickafoose, who also works as Boone County circuit clerk.
Big coal came out to support Nelson in a big way, Zickafoose said, a move the Democratic Party didn't see coming.
Campaign finance records show Nelson raised more than $40,000, compared to $23,200 raised by his competitor, incumbent Democrat Larry Barker.
Much of Nelson's money came in the form of small contributions, but a few heavy hitters in the coal industry chipped in. During an April fundraising event put on by the Jackson Kelly law firm, Nelson received $500 each from Patriot Coal President Bennett Hatfield, Alpha Natural Resources President Paul Vining and fellow Alpha executives Henry Looney and Randy McMillon.
Hatfield eventually contributed $1,000 more, with Andrew Jordon, the head of Pritchard Mining, also contributing $500, according to campaign finance records.
"Larry was just . . . I think he realized he didn't have the heart to campaign because he had all these forces against him," Zickafoose said.
While that money helped Nelson buy billboards and other fliers, Zickafoose gives him credit for his ability to campaign and connect. She said he revved up younger voters, knocking on doors and speaking with residents for days on end.
She also thought the growing animosity for President Barack Obama and Democrats on a national level hurt Barker's chances. Conrad Lucas, head of the West Virginia Republican Party, agreed.
He commended Nelson's grassroots campaign but thinks the GOP spending "thousands" on fliers sent throughout southern West Virginia might have played a factor.
Nelson said he didn't receive a great deal of help from the state party: he guessed the 7-1 registration advantage of Democrats in his district didn't make him a "safe bet" for investment. Victory came down to the time he spent meeting and speaking with voters.
"I was owl shift most of the campaign, which is the night shift," Nelson said of his mine job. "So I would work all night long and sleep for three hours or four hours, then get up and campaign all day long, for a long time."
It worked. Nelson won by more than 1,500 votes. Nelson, Lucas and Zickafoose all said as the campaign drew to a close, they knew the young Republican would win.
In his first session Nelson is proud to have sponsored a bill addressing selenium levels in public waterways, and he's happy to see a little movement on some coal measures.
There have been some bumps in the road. During a recent committee meeting Nelson said he was the biggest coal man in the Legislature.
In a later meeting House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, a longtime representative of the United Mine Workers union, chided Nelson at the notion, with the committee chuckling as he spoke.
"I'm only 26," Nelson said. "Obviously Mr. Caputo's been involved in the coal industry for longer than I've been born. But I will tell you that there's no one in this Legislature with a bigger heart for the coalfields than myself. And for what we do. It's in my blood."
'Answer the call'
Flying also is in Nelson's blood, and he'll get his chance to continue to do so with the West Virginia Air National Guard. But he wasn't eager to talk about it.
"It's hard for me to mix military and political details. When I put my uniform on, I'm a completely different person," Nelson said.
He joined the Air National Guard to learn how to fly the C-130 transport plane. Nelson won't be piloting the massive, military-green aircraft around Yeager Airport any time soon, but it's a goal.
When he leaves Saturday, he's going off to train, said Adj. Gen. James Hoyer.
"This is his required training at a military installation to meet his requirements to become an officer," Hoyer said.
Nelson didn't want to talk about where he was going but said he wouldn't be in harm's way.
Hoyer has met with Nelson the lawmaker several times and said he's a sharp young man ready to make an impact in West Virginia. He's confident his prior military experience will help him get in the swing of things once training begins.
Nelson is not alone in dropping everything to serve, Hoyer added.
"There are 6,500 other men and women in the West Virginia Air National Guard, and all of them at some point in their military careers have encountered a situation where it wasn't convenient for them or their families," Hoyer said.
Sen. Erik Wells is another lawmaker who serves in the military. The Kanawha County Democrat is also a public affairs officer in the Navy Reserve and has spent months away from home fulfilling that obligation.
The duty is tough on everyone, regardless of what their other job is, Wells said.
During past legislative sessions, he hasn't been able to participate in some of the activities to the same extent as other members. While serving in Hawaii for seven months in 2007, he was still able to answer some calls and emails from constituents. It was harder to do so during his months in Kabul, Afghanistan.
"When I was in Afghanistan, I was still able to vote for the Senate president because my orders were still less than 270 days," Wells said.
With Nelson leaving for a shorter amount of time, Wells thought it would be easier for him to transition back into legislative life. Communication is key to making that transition successful.
Wells suggested he stay in touch with other legislators, read the news and monitor the Internet when possible to keep up with what's going on.
Nelson informed fellow delegates of his obligation during a recent floor session. He thanked them for their help, told them he wished he didn't have to leave during the session and said he appreciated his time in the Legislature.
He can't say when, but Nelson plans to be back to Boone County sometime in May. He said he's already looking forward to next session.