Ag office, high court, this election season’s top races

The public’s attention at next week’s primary election is probably going to be focused on two races that usually are not in the spotlight because the competition for each party’s nomination for governor is virtually nonexistent.

Both Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and his Republican challenger Bill Maloney both have token opponents and are expected to win their party primary nominations with ease.

It’s possible that the stiffest competition could be in the five-way race for the Democratic nomination for commissioner of agriculture. A close second could be the battle for two 12-year seats on the five-member Supreme Court of Appeals.

Commissioner Gus Douglass is retiring after nearly a half century in that role — it was interrupted only by a four-year absence when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in the 1988 primary election. And one of the five contenders for the Democratic nomination to succeed him in the $90,000-a-year salary position is a woman, so if females who vote cast their ballots for Sally Shepherd of Kanawha County, she could well defeat the four other candidates.

Douglass has endorsed Steve Miller who has worked in the department for 30 years, including the last three as assistant commissioner. In doing so, he snubbed another current staff member, former legislator Bob Tabb, who has worked as a deputy commissioner for Douglass since 2009. Jim Messineo, who recently retired from the agency, is also a candidate for the Democratic nomination, along with longtime state legislator Walt Helmick.

The only Republican candidate is Monongalia County resident Kent Leonhardt of Fairview, so he is assured of his party’s nomination and Carl Waggoner of White Sulphur Springs is a write-in candidate who lists no party affiliation.

The competition for the two Democrat nominations for the Supreme Court has prompted the most campaign commercials on television with incumbent Justice Robin Davis and challenger Letitia “Tish” Chafin the most prominent. Also in that primary race are J. D. Beane of Parkersburg and Jim Rowe of Lewisburg, both former legislators who are now circuit judges as well as Lewis Palmer of Pocatalico and H. John Rogers of New Martinsville.

The only two Republican candidates on the ballot, Allen Loughry of Charleston and John Yoder of Harpers Ferry, are both assured of being nominated as the GOP candidates in the November general election.

The other four incumbent state executive officers seeking another four-year term this year — Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw Jr., State Auditor Glen B. Gainer III; State Treasurer John Perdue and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant — have no Democratic opposition in the primary but all will face a GOP opponent in the November general election.

So interest in the election results next Tuesday night will be centered on the Democratic competition for the party’s choice for commissioner of agriculture and the two selections for the Supreme Court of Appeals. And it could be a sweep for the ladies.

Meanwhile, there may be some reluctance on the part of organized labor to applaud Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s executive order last week that calls for mandatory drug testing of anyone who wants to enroll in job training that is financed by the taxpayers. This comes on the heels of Tomblin’s successful push to get a bill passed at the recent legislative session to require random screening of potential coal mine employees who fill safety-sensitive job openings.

Kenny Perdue, president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, suggested it could be an excuse to hire out-of-state workers. He said he doesn’t believe the abuse of drugs is as widespread as some people suggest. But the growing problems of substance abuse in this state are obvious.

The executive order will require testing for 10 types of drugs and follows the lead of Indiana which became the first state to require drug testing of people seeking job training last year. West Virginia apparently is the second state in the nation to take this step.

It will be up to Workforce West Virginia to work out the details of this new program and determine the date it takes effect. This agency will also be responsible for covering the costs of each test that will be administered by an outside contractor. Based on previous statistics, this will affect some 2,200 people annually and should give prospective employers some assurances that potential newly trained employees are indeed drug-free.

Finally, it became apparent last week that the anticipated reopening of the Century Aluminum plant in Jackson County and the possible 450 to 650 new jobs it would provide is still not a certainty despite the 2012 efforts by the West Virginia Legislature to provide major tax relief to the company. Lawmakers passed a bill to provide $20 million of tax credits for each of the next 10 years.

But now it’s up to the West Virginia Public Service Commission to approve the agreement between Century and American Electric Power because that’s where the actual tax credits will be realized. Company officials say they are still optimistic but it will still be months before it is a done deal — probably close to the end of 2012.

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