While tenured state Sen. Corey Palumbo is making his exit from politics, for now, two other experienced state delegates are competing to take his place representing Kanawha County in the West Virginia Senate.
It will be the first time since 2008 that voters are guaranteed to select a new person to represent West Virginia’s 17th Senatorial District.
Republican Eric Nelson and Democrat Andrew Robinson, both of Charleston, are hoping to be that new face in the Senate in 2021.
Nelson, a financial consultant and manager by trade, has been elected to the House in every election since 2010. He notably served as chairman of the House Finance Committee from 2015 to 2018.
He is the chairman of the House Banking Committee and vice chairman of the Pensions and Retirement Committee, and he says his financial and business experience makes him the best person for the seat. Nelson is one of four delegates who represent House District 35, which includes Central and Western Kanawha County to its county line with Putnam County.
Voters elected Robinson to the House in 2016 and 2018. He is a real estate appraiser and broker by trade. He is the minority chairman of the House Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse and the Political Subdivisions Committee. Robinson said his work establishing the Ryan Brown Fund, which allocates money to substance-abuse recovery in the state, is his biggest legislative accomplishment.
Robinson is one of three delegates who represent House District 36, which includes all of Southern Kanawha County.
The candidates disagree on how Gov. Jim Justice has administered the use of $1.2 billion West Virginia received from Congress in the CARES Act in March. The lump sum was a one-time payment meant for state and local governments to use to cope with the pandemic.
Nelson supports the governor, saying, “I wouldn’t do it any different,” when it comes to the people from whom the governor is taking advice for using the CARES money.
However, Nelson said, he would prefer that the Legislature has a greater say in where such money goes.
“I’m not in favor of a special session right now, because it would be too politicized and nothing would get done in a positive manner,” he said. “But going forward, should the Legislature have much greater control of any disbursements? Absolutely.”
Robinson said one person should not be in charge of $1.25 billion and that the West Virginia Constitution gives the Legislature the power of the purse, not the governor. He said the governor doling out the money during an election year has made it inherently political.
“I think it’s very dangerous to have that large of a sum of money being spent and passed out by one individual,” Robinson said. “I tend to [believe] this is an election, and money is being handed out as poking, trying to boost some support. One of the big issues I also have is items can slip past one person.”
Both men said that, for West Virginia to strengthen its economy and outgrow harmful stereotypes, lawmakers must pass laws that protect vulnerable populations and provide a system of support for people who would come to the state, particularly growing families.
Nelson and Robinson told the Gazette-Mail they would support the Fairness Act, if voters send them to the Senate.
The Fairness Act would make it illegal for employers or landlords to fire someone or kick them out of a rental property based on the employees’ and tenants’ sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Fairness Act was introduced in the House and Senate during the 2020 legislative session, but it never gained traction.
During the session, Robinson thrice voted in support of measures to advance the House version of the Fairness Act. Nelson thrice voted against those measures. The bill died in the House Industry and Labor Committee without consideration by delegates.
Since the cornonavirus pandemic has further highlighted weak and non-existent internet access throughout West Virginia, both candidates said it is a priority for them to provide more access and reliability to broadband networks in the state.
Nelson and Robinson cite their support in the Legislature for measures that gave private broadband companies tax breaks, the ability to establish broadband lines on existing public utility poles and greater right-of-way along public property — all with with the goal of enticing them to extend their network in underserved parts of the state.
Laying the groundwork for private companies to extend and strengthen their broadband networks is key to making the internet more accessible in West Virginia, Nelson said.
“It cut down certain regulations that had been impediments as it related to laying fiber,” Nelson said. “You’ve gotta build the base before you have the ability to invest.”
Robinson said the previous measures approved by the Legislature were good, but he added that, until broadband is made a public utility and those companies are held accountable by the Public Service Commission, there is no incentive, financial or otherwise, for them to extend their networks and ensure quality service.
He said the state needs to take initiative to establish partnerships to jump-start construction on the networks.
“Are individuals going to get services just because AT&T got a tax break? I don’t think so,” Robinson said. “What we have to do is really invest in concrete infrastructure, and that’s put fiber in the ground, put conduit in the ground, so we can update fiber at a later time.”
When it comes to drawing people to West Virginia, Nelson said there’s a need to expand more into solar energy. He also noted his co-sponsorship of a bill during the 2020 legislative session that would have provided 12 weeks of paid family leave to state employees, who have 12 weeks of unpaid leave under existing law.
“It shows the intent of us, as leaders, of what we want to provide our own employees,” Nelson said. “It is a great example for others to see.”
Robinson said West Virginia needs to be more inclusive to attract people and business to the state, and he said the state needs to find a sweet spot of giving tax incentives to businesses without dumping the burden on West Virginians.
“Our tax structure is an interesting thing we can get into,” Robinson said. “While we have to be sensitive to what our large companies need, we can’t shift that off to the employees and make them pay the tax to give the tax break to the larger company.”