CHARLES TOWN – As Jefferson County’s first-time lawmakers Stephen Skinner and Paul Espinosa begin their work in the Legislature today, they’re also making history as, respectively, West Virginia’s first openly gay lawmaker and the state’s first Hispanic legislator.
Both natives of the county, Skinner is a 44-year-old Shenandoah Junction resident, a progressive Democrat elected in November to fill the seat long held by John Doyle of Shepherdstown. Doyle, a Democrat, retired after more than two decades in office.
Skinner lived in London, New York and D.C. before joining Skinner Law Firm, where he practices law with his father and brother in downtown Charles Town. Since his return to the Mountain State, he has been active in Panhandle, state and national politics.
Espinosa, a 50-year-old Republican, is a first-generation Mexican-American who has spent his career in Jefferson County, with a resume that includes time at BB&T Bank and now as the general manager of Frontier Communications in Ranson. He served as president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce for 2010-11.
Both men graduated from Jefferson High (Espinosa in 1980 and Skinner in 1986) and both chose West Virginia Wesleyan for college, the private liberal arts college about 180 miles away in Buckhannon. Skinner went on to earn his law degree from West Virginia University.
In November, after his election win over Republican Elliot Simon, Skinner’s sexual orientation made news in Washington and on The Huffington Post. In interviews then, Skinner said he was somewhat surprised that his sexual orientation did not come up during the campaign.
Formerly president of Fairness West Virginia, Skinner said his sexuality clearly was part of the public record. “The reality is the campaign was just about what any state legislative race should be about – local issues and who has the best ideas for taking the state forward,” Skinner told Huffington Post.
Thanks to years of work as an advocate for civil rights and other issues, Skinner said he already knows House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, and many other committee chairs in the Legislature. “I’ve been very involved in state politics for a number of years now,” Skinner said. “I’m not just now getting to know these folks. There’s already an understanding, a sense of trust.”
Espinosa said in an interview that he is keeping an open mind about his new role in the Legislature, but will keep his mindset as a fiscal conservative in the forefront.
He said he aims to be mindful of the state’s pursestrings. “I don’t think we can tax our way out of the challenges we have,” said Espinosa, who will serve on the House Education, Political Subdivisions and Roads and Transportation committees.
Skinner is serving on the Judiciary and Constitutional Revision committees as well as the Energy, Industry and Labor/Economic Development and Small Business. Because of his experience as a small business owner, he says helping those who own businesses in the Panhandle is a top priority.
“I’m very excited about that role,” he said. “I have met with the owners of Vivo Hair Salon & Day Spa and Bloomery Plantation and businesses in the hospitality industry about regulatory changes that would make sense for West Virginia to adopt.”
Skinner said that beyond those “real-world” issues, he also plans to work to ensure “basic civil rights” for all West Virginians, including those whose sexual identity make them a target for discrimination.
In 2010, Skinner’s work won him the Living the Dream award, the highest honor given by the West Virginia Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission.
Espinosa, whose parents met in Mexico, where his father had been born and was working as a jockey, also is focused on how to make West Virginia more business-friendly.
“Democrat or Republican, there is the realization that we need to improve the economic climate in the state,” he said. “We need to improve the underlying factors that make us less competitive than other states.”
Espinosa’s roots in the Panhandle are tied to its horse racing tradition. His parents met after his mother and her father traveled to Mexico from their home in Berryville, Va., to race horses.
After their marriage, Victor and Faye Espinosa settled in Charles Town, where the elder Espinosa found work as a jockey. The future lawmaker was born in Ranson on April 28, 1962.
Espinosa has long been active in local issues. He has served as president of the Charles Town Rotary Club, where he has been named a Paul Harris Fellow and 2011’s Distinguished Citizen.
He also has served on the Eastern Panhandle Business Association, the Jefferson County Development Authority, the Jefferson County Farm Bureau, the Jefferson County Historical Society and the county’s Parks and Recreation Commission.
Running for elected office had been a notion he’d been mulling for a few years, and one that he thought he’d take a poke at when he learned that he was a resident of the newly drawn 66th delegate district.
Espinosa said he is excited by the recent gains by Republicans in the House of Delegates, where the party picked up 14 seats statewide. He is part of the GOP’s largest coalition in West Virginia since before the Depression.
“It means more if you can implement changes instead of blocking legislation,” he said. “We’re very much in a position now where we will have input into legislation instead of being in a position of just taking it or leaving it.”
Espinosa said he had hoped for a seat on the Education Committee. He calls the issue a central one for West Virginia in its ability to grow economically, and believes solutions to improving the schools can be found in increasing local control of them.
“I’m confident that is the opportunity is given to take away the bureaucracy that stifles innovation, principals and teachers will deliver results,” he said, acknowledging his approach to education is not as an expert, but as a father.
Espinosa and his wife Mary Catherine Weller live in Charles Town are the parents of three.
He said he believes in empowering educators and also in asking them to be willing to be held to account for their performance. “It’s unreasonable to think that education is different from other professions,” he said. “There is a wealth of information out there. I’m all about empowering people. I think the closer to the people government is, the better.”
Skinner also cited education as a central challenge of the 2013 session, but said he is far less enthused as a number of West Virginia Republicans express zeal for adding new layers to the ID required for voting and for keeping West Virginia from enforcing new gun regulations that win federal approval.
“We’re hearing talk about nullification – the last time the term nullification was being thrown around was during desegregation when the former Confederate.