State Senator Kent Leonhardt on Monday announced his plans to run for commissioner of the Department of Agriculture.
“After much consideration, I have decided to run for agriculture commissioner again because we need to grow farming and better serve West Virginians,” the Republican lawmaker from Monongalia County said in front of a small crowd outside the state Capitol.
Flanked by his wife, Shirley, seven state Senators including senate President and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Cole, and three delegates, Leonhardt said he planned to modernize state government’s role in helping farmers grow and provide West Virginians access to fresh food.
“I certainly do feel that department needs some new leadership to bring it forward,” he said of the agriculture department.
Citing his military background, Leonhardt said his expertise could help improve the complex operation of the state agency.
Following the morning press conference, Leonhardt mentioned a few specific things he would like to do as agriculture commissioner.
“First off we have to get a little bit better in the planning and the organization of the way things are being done,” he said.
Pointing to his involvement in the State Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture program, which is designed to integrate veterans into agriculture and support those already operating in the field through various training and support programs, Leonhardt said he’d like to see the department spearhead similar initiatives in the future.
“Agriculture is a business that has tremendous growth potential within this state,” he explained. “If we do this right, we also help with the health and welfare of the citizens of West Virginia.”
Among the agriculture-related issues that were discussed during the 2015 session was raw milk, an issue that Leonhardt believes will be brought up in the upcoming session.
Lawmakers approved a bill that would have permitted dairy farmers to provide consumers raw milk through herdshare agreements but Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ultimately vetoed it.
“I’m not opposed to people choosing (to drink raw milk) as a personal choice,” Leonhardt said, noting the Department of Agriculture would be responsible for overseeing raw milk producers.
“It will be watched very diligently if I’m commissioner of agriculture,” he said.
Leonhardt also said he wants to make sure West Virginians have a safe, affordable food supply.
Pointing out that West Virginia has a three- to seven-day food supply, he said should the state receive an influx of people in the event of a disaster in Washington, D.C. — the demand for food would be even greater.
“This is where you need somebody with some military experience and some background that can take control of the situation and make sure that West Virginians don’t go hungry like they did in the derecho of 2012,” he said.
While introducing Leonhardt, Cole called the Republican senator a “candidate with the right blend of experience in planning and farming to modernize the office and harness the potential agriculture provides to help get West Virginia moving again.”
Leonhardt’s latest run for the state’s top agriculture official will be his second. He previously sought the position in 2012 but was defeated in the general election by Democrat Walt Helmick, who received 51 percent of the vote.
First elected to the state Senate in 2014, Leonhardt won his Senate seat in 2014, narrowly defeating incumbent Democratic Senator Larry Edgell.
Leonhardt is not up for re-election for the Senate until 2018; therefore, if he were to lose in the 2016 agriculture commissioner race, he would retain his seat.
A retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, Leonhardt and his wife own and operate a 380-acre farm in Fairview.
Helmick has already filed commissioner of agriculture precandidacy papers with the secretary of state’s office, which effectively allows him to raise and spend money.