Thompson exit sets off race for House speaker
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House of Delegates Speaker Rick Thompson announced Thursday that he would resign next month to take a cabinet post in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration. By the end of the day, several prominent House members were positioning themselves to fill the speaker's chair.
At a Thursday morning news conference, Tomblin announced that Thompson would be the new secretary of the Department of Veterans Assistance. He will replace Keith Gwinn, who said he's leaving the post for health reasons.
Tomblin said he and Thompson had talked "over the years" about "what his future would be," and the governor believes Thompson is a good choice to succeed Gwinn.
"He is a veteran. He's very passionate about doing all he can to help veterans in the state," Tomblin said. Thompson served in the U.S. Army from 1972 to 1974, and was on "standby reserve" until 1978, according to a news release. He was a military policeman during his Army service.
Thompson said he had not anticipated joining the Tomblin administration, but said of the appointment, "This is truly an opportunity that doesn't come along every day."
"I believe I can do a lot of good for those who deserve it. This is a perfect fit for me," he said.
Thompson, a Wayne County Democrat, said his top priority will be locating a second state veterans' nursing home in the Beckley area. The state's only current veterans' nursing home is in Harrison County.
Thompson ran for governor in 2011 and finished second to Tomblin in a six-way Democratic primary.
Consensus among House members Thursday was that there are four leading candidates to succeed Thompson as House Speaker: Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton; Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo; Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison; and Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha.
Skaff, a Charleston businessman first elected in 2008 and best known for negotiating a House redistricting agreement that led to the breaking up of the old seven-member 30th District, said he believes he is the front-runner in the race.
"I think its time for a fresh new face in the House," said Skaff, who said he believes he has commitments from 18 to 22 of the House's 54 Democrats, with 28 votes needed to win the nomination in the House Democratic caucus.
Skaff said he would be better able to work cooperatively with the House's 46 Republicans.
"I'm a middle-of-the-road guy," he said. "I work well with Republicans. ... The House needs somebody like me who can work with both sides of the aisle."
Skaff said last month he was considering a run for Congress, for the seat now held by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who is giving up that seat to run for the U.S. Senate.
Boggs, who has served 17 years in the House, including the past five as majority leader, said he is interested in being speaker, then announced it on his Twitter account.
He said it is vital that the House have a smooth, seamless transition, given that the Legislature is in the middle of its 81st term.
"It's very important we try to minimize the disruption," said Boggs, who anticipates the selection of a new speaker will be "fair, friendly and equitable."
Miley, who had been contemplating a run for state Senate in 2014, said he is now considering seeking the speaker's post.
He had not made a final decision as of Thursday. "To some degree or another, I'm sure all delegates are interested in being speaker," he said.
Both Miley and White, who could not be reached for comment, have to make a decision on whether to risk their chairmanships on a run for speaker, or instead try to solidify their current positions by throwing their support to the new speaker.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, ran for speaker in January and told The Associated Press that he would do so again after Thompson's announcement.
"There are a number of conservative Democrats in the House who have not been pleased with the direction that some of the policies have gone in the House in the last several years," Armstead said.
Thompson is tentatively expected to resign from the House on June 15. At that point, Tomblin will have 10 days to call the House into session to elect a new speaker.
Normally, that call could coincide with monthly legislative interim meetings, set for June 19-21. However, June interims will be held in Wheeling, to commemorate the state's 150th anniversary, and that will require Tomblin to call the session in Charleston either immediately before or after the interim meetings.
Typically, House Democrats meet in closed-door caucus the evening before to select a nominee, who then is unanimously backed by Democrats in the floor vote.
Miley said he does not anticipate a contentious speaker's race.
"I frankly believe that when the position is vacated, the Democrats will get together, and get behind the one person they believe is best to lead them in the House of Delegates," he said.
This could be the first seriously contested race for speaker since former Delegate Scott Varner, D-Marshall, faced Thompson in the December 2006 Democratic caucus after former speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, did not run for re-election.
Varner, who had been House majority whip under Kiss, remained in the House for six years afterward, but never again held a leadership position.
The Department of Veterans Assistance was elevated to a cabinet-level position in state government in 2011. Gwinn had led the department for a decade before that, but said Thursday his health will force him to leave.
"I have to [retire]," Gwinn said. "I have had eight operations in the last six years. ... I look forward to working with Mr. Thompson."
Staff writer Kate White contributed to this report. Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com or 304-348-1220.